New Worlds: The Etiquette of Names

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

Closing out the topic of names (at least for now), let’s dig into how they get used.

This is something I think Americans sometimes have trouble grasping, because our society has jettisoned a huge percentage of the etiquette of names. The speed with which we get on a first-name basis with one another is shocking by historical standards — assuming we don’t just start there right out of the gate. (Writing this post, I realized I don’t even know my neighbors’ last names, because we all introduced ourselves with first names only.) In many cases, the only gradation of formality we mark is whether you call someone by their actual name, or by a less formal nickname.

But in many times and places, including various parts of the world today, the given name is reserved for people with whom one is on fairly intimate terms: family members, maybe very close friends. For everyone else, or in non-private situations, you use something else.

In some cases this will still be their name, just a different component thereof. Where there are multiple given names, one may be for private use (for example, a childhood name), the other for public (the name taken at adulthood). If the society has family names, those commonly get used for more formal address. The difference between forms of address can convey a host of social cues that get lost if there’s no etiquette of names: two friends or sweethearts moving to a first-name basis is a watershed of intimacy, while a social superior calling an inferior by their given name can be a way of asserting their power. Meanwhile, a close companion suddenly addressing you by your family name could herald a sudden gulf of distance or hostility, while in a more hierarchical context it might be a way of conveying respect. (In the movie Hidden Figures, it’s a huge moment when the white manager addresses her black employee as Mrs. Vaughan, instead of Dorothy.)

Names often don’t operate on their own, either. In English men are formally addressed as mister/Mr., a term derived from “master.” The female equivalent was “mistress,” but over time it bifurcated into Miss and Mrs., the former indicating an unmarried woman, the latter a married one — a distinction that never got made for men. Ms., derived from the same source, formerly enjoyed scattered usage as a way to address a woman whose marital status was unknown, but now it’s acquired currency as a way of ditching that question entirely. Several European languages follow a similar pattern (señor/señorita/señora; monsieur/mademoiselle/madame; Herr/Fräulein/Frau) — if you happen to know of one that marks the marital status of men, please do share!

Other forms of address differentiate based on rank. As the “master”/”mistress” example implies, even today’s routine etiquette has its origins in those gradations; “sir” and “madam,” which we now deploy to be polite to just about anybody, used to be much more restrictive. (But don’t get confused; “sirrah” was used for inferiors, not equals or superiors.) In Japanese neither marital condition nor gender factor in — men and women alike are -san in basic address — but there’s a host of other honorifics that mark status, like -sama (formerly used for lords; now used much more widely to convey deference), -sensei (not “teacher” so much as a term of respect that gets used for teachers, doctors, and other noteworthy figures), -senpai (a senior student or someone in a comparable position to you), all the positional titles within a company, and more.

Going back to English, there’s a whole complex framework of etiquette around addressing nobility of different ranks: this one is a “my lord” or “your lordship,” but that one is “your Excellency” and this other one is “your Grace.” Ascribed virtues take the place of names. Furthermore, personal names often vanish in that context, replaced instead by estate names; William Cavendish, the Marquess of Hartington, could be addressed and referred to as Lord Hartington. Even to his good friends, he might just be Hartington, or possibly Cavendish, but rarely if ever William, Will, or Bill — at least to anyone other than his immediate family members.

Speaking of family, sometimes that can also take the place of names. Many cultures around the world eschew the use of personal names within a family, seeing it as more respectful to use kinship terms. In English we do that a little bit; very few of us call our parents by their names, and if a grandparent’s or aunt’s/uncle’s name gets used, it’s usually prefaced by the appropriate term: Grandma Nell, Uncle Fred. But extensions of that principle that sound natural in other languages — younger sister, elder brother, second cousin, etc — sound clunky in English because we don’t have specific terms for those relationships, just adjectives we can tack on when we need to make distinctions. Then there’s Arabic, where an adult may be addressed as the father or mother of their child (Abu Mazen/Umm Mazen). And, of course, kinship terms can be used as honorifics, their literal meaning discarded; in some societies any elderly man or woman is a grandfather or grandmother to a respectful stranger, and sometimes the middle-aged are similarly aunts and uncles.

Several people in the comments on an earlier post shared anecdotes about running into trouble when they tried to replicate this kind of thing in fiction. It’s true, the shifts between names can be difficult for a reader to follow; when I first picked up Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novel The Game of Kings, it took me a while to really internalize that Lymond, Mr. Crawford, Francis, and the Master of Culter were all the same person. (Estate name, family name, given name, and title as heir to the Barony of Culter.) But the flip side is that once I had internalized it, the shifts between those names added power to the story: someone referring to the protagonist as Francis was as good as shooting off a rocket to signal that the character speaking had a particular relationship to him. The intimacy of a nickname (which I understand figures heavily in Russian literature), the formality of a title, the reminders of familial structure encoded in a kinship term — those all add to the story.

So while including them creates a variety of challenges, I’m in favor of more people tackling those challenges, figuring out how to present them so the reader gets trained in the necessary habits of thinking. Even just the basic etiquette of given name vs. family name + title is something we see very little of anymore.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: The Etiquette of Names — 22 Comments

    • In Dutch we have meneer/juffrouw/mevrouw, but juffrouw is very obsolete and any girl in spitting distance of adulthood is “mevrouw”. My daughters (now 23 and 21) were shocked to be called that in their mid- to late teens.

      Also, when I was just married, I was shocked to be called “Mrs Marriedname” even though I’d opted to use my married name (that has to be done explicitly in NL or you’re Mrs Maidenname), because that was my mother-in-law.

      • Semi-related to that–not etiquette so much as cultural disconnect, but in Korea women don’t have a “married [family] name.” Women keep their family names when they marry, although children get the father’s family name. So my dad is a Lee and my mom is a Chun, but we’d get mail in the USA addressed to “Dr. and Mrs. Lee” [my dad is a surgeon], which is very weird to a Korean, because to a Korean my mom is not a Lee at all.

        This also has nothing to do with feminism–as my mom rather cynically explained to me, there’s some Korean saying that the Korean wife is (I’m translating this poorly a “ghost on the threshold”–the fact that she *doesn’t* share a name with her husband and the kids means that she’s forever an outsider.

        • When I was at the town office asking to be called by my married name the (woman) clerk asked “Are you sure you want to be an appendage of your husband?” I replied “Rather than an appendage of my father, you mean?” In fact, apart from all having the same name as a family, my husband’s name fits my first name better and is much easier to spell and pronounce for all our international friends.

        • Yeah. When reading Chinese works, where the same rule applies, it always reminds me that you can’t marry into a family.

  1. We have some similar honorific level shenanigans going on in Korean to Japanese (also encoded, as you know, Marie-Bob, in verb forms) and I have found that it’s easiest to explain it to people who already know something about Japanese. (Thank you, anime?)

  2. Hierarchies can be slippery in the USA because there is no established rule. One boss insists on being called by his/her first name. Another boss wants title-lastname, but uses workers’ first names to enforce hierarchy. (The first one can have just as strong a hierarchy, but it’s not as obvious.) A third boss will use title-lastname when pissed at a worker.

    Then there is the medical world. Patients can be annoyed at being addressed by first names, or feel that it is comforting.

    When we meet newlyweds, we don’t assume anymore that they are Mr. and Mrs. Guy-Lastname.

    In personal experience, I found the toughest to adjust to were the hyphenated names in the latter eighties, early nineties, back when I was a teacher. We had kids whose names were so long the little fingers couldn’t get them across the entire top of the page. There were a couple of families in which the parents parted and remarried so often that all the siblings had completely different hyphenated names.

    • I know people who have given one offspring the father’s last name, and the other offspring the mother’s last name. Causes a lot of confusion for a lot of people, and while I understand the rationale, I’m not sure I agree that it works. I also know people who have chosen a completely new family surname for themselves upon marriage.

      I’ve taken to leaving off the gender-specific honorific on my name in all correspondence in favour of a simple first initial. I like the ambiguity, and, quite frankly, the slight measure of safety it affords in a world where rabid anti-female backlash has emerged, particularly in online settings. This is one of the few internet places where I feel comfortable revealing my female identity. Everywhere else, I’m neutral. Interesting, though, how maleness (like whiteness), unless otherwise specified, is the default assumption…

      • In NL parents can choose either parent’s last name (as of the current law, which wasn’t in force 20+ years ago when ours were born) but all children must have the same last name. (We’d have given ours their father’s name anyway, for reasons mentioned above)

          • Well, yes, in composite families everything is more complicated, though there are easy rules to give minors a different last name (once you’re of age, it becomes very hard, and changing first names is almost impossible and prohibitively expensive, as I experienced myself). The “all children must have the same last name” only applies to children of the same two parents.

      • I know of two families in which they’ve chosen a new last name for everybody. In both situations the parental families were so confused with complicated backgrounds it seemed an elegant solution.

  3. Was a time when the rule was Mr./Master and Mrs./Miss — the first indicating an older person, and the second a youngster.

  4. Then there’s Arabic, where an adult may be addressed as the father or mother of their child (Abu Mazen/Umm Mazen).

    In Dutch that happens in one particular context: playdates. Most friends of my kids called me “[kid’s name]’s mother” when they were between, say, 3 and 8.

  5. In the Niccolo books by Dorothy Dunnett it infuriated me that one character was never named by his surname except right at the end when it’s a big reveal. It seemed very forced to me, and very unlike the Lymond books.

  6. Arabic also uses reversed kinship names, at least within a family. My parents often call me “dad” and “mom”, and aunts and uncles will refer to me as “auntie” and “uncle”. I didn’t recognize it as unusual until a non-Arab friended pointed out how strange it sounded to them.

  7. In my language and culture there is a mare’s nest of monikers, specific to relationships. Your mother’s brother and your father’s brother have different names for you to call them by (“stric” and “teca”) ditto for sisters (“Strina” and “tetka”); your mother-n-law and father-in-law have different monikers if they’re on the wife’s side or teh husband’s (she calls his mother and father “svekar” and “svekrva” and he calls hers “tast” and “tasta”). There are names for children of your brother and your sister, depending on the gender of the person who is your own relative; there are special words for wife’s-sister, wife’s-brother, husband’s-sister, husband’s-brother. Funnily enough grandparents have escaped this particular cauldron and are the same for everybody. You introduce anyone properly by their given sobriquet in the family hierarchy to someone not in the know and that poor idiot will spend the rest of the day trying to parse out the exact relationship, making sure that they have the degree of separation and the gender divide correct. (The plus side is that for those who ARE in the know one word can disentangle a whole lot of explanations as to who is related to whom and how…)

    • Yeah, there will be a kinship post eventually where I talk about societies that distinguish between sororal relations and fraternal ones. It’s hard to convey in English because we flat-out don’t have words for those things; we have to use descriptive phrases instead.

  8. I’ve joked that in Japanese, using a personal name can be more intimate than having sex. From what I hear it’s not a complete exaggeration.

    It’s also been fun paying attention, as I watch subtitled anime, to the spoken honorifics (which may or may not be preserved in the subs) or other variations. E.g. in Nanoha, Fate Testarossa, age 9, is variously Fate-chan (default for little girls), Fate (by mother and familiar), Fate-san[1], Fate-kun (by her military superior), Testarossa (by an enemy), and Testarossa-chan (by a softer, friendlier, enemy).

    [1] Commodore Lindy is odd: she *habitually* calls 9 year old girls ‘-san’, even in conversations when others are using ‘-chan’, and even for the girls who don’t have the magical power to kick her ass. It’s habitual enough that it has to be deliberate by the show creators, but never commented on… I like to think she’s just that respectful, using a term of equality rather than exercising the usual age superiority.

    In Akagami no Shirayukihime, Shirayuki starts out as ‘-chan’ to the old folks from her home town, is comonly ‘-san’ to others, ‘-kun’ to the Chief Herbalist who’s her superior, ‘-dono’ especially to the poor palace guards[2], and just plain to Prince Zen — whom she calls ‘Zen’ in return. Zen’s bodyguards, both drawn from the nobility, tend to use ‘-dono’ on each other.

    [2] Who have to deal with the fact that she’s clearly not proper nobility or gentry of any kind, but also is on a first name basis with the Prince with free run of the palace… if the series weren’t practically Disney, there’d probably be a lot more people openly assuming they’re sleeping together.

    Crest of the Stars largely rests on Jinto being so clueless that a princess can tell him to use her first name without his realizing it’s odd, at first, and since no one uses her first name she cherishes that.

    Getting away from anime and Hodgell, Duane’s My Enemy, My Ally has the Rihannsu (Romulans) using three public names… probably on a Roman-ish model, though I don’t remember. And a fourth, very very private, name. Ael doesn’t sleep with Kirk, but she *does* give him her fourth name by the end of the book.

    (She also finds “James” hilariously funny, IIRC.)