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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

IV. American and English Today

3. Honorifics

AMONG the honorifics in everyday use in England and the United States one finds many notable divergences between the two languages. On the one hand the English are almost as diligent as the Germans in bestowing titles of honor upon their men of mark, and on the other hand they are very careful to withhold such titles from men who do not legally bear them. In America every practitioner of any branch of the healing art, even a chiropodist or an osteopath, is a doctor ipso facto, but in England a good many surgeons lack the title and it is not common in the lesser ranks. Even physicians may not have it, but here there is a yielding of a usual meticulous exactness, and it is customary to address a physician in the second person as Doctor, though his card may show that he is only Medicinœ Baccalaureus, a degree quite unknown in America. Thus an Englishman, when he is ill, always sends for the doctor, as we do. But a surgeon is usually plain Mr., and prefers to be so called, even when he is an M. D. An English veterinarian or dentist or druggist or masseur is never Dr.

Nor Professor. In all save a few large cities of America every male pedagogue is a professor, and so is every band leader, dancing master and medical consultant. But in England the title is very rigidly restricted to men who hold chairs in the universities, a necessarily small body. Even here a superior title always takes precedence. Thus, it used to be Professor Almroth Wright, but now it is always Sir Almroth Wright. Huxley was always called Professor Huxley until he was appointed to the Privy Council. This appointment gave him the right to have Right Honourable put before his name, and thereafter it was customary to call him simply Mr. Huxley, with the Right Honourable, so to speak, floating in the air. The combination, to an Englishman, was more flattering than Professor, for the English always esteem political dignities far more than the dignities of learning. This explains, perhaps, why their universities distribute so few honorary degrees. In the United States every respectable Protestant clergyman is a D. D., and it is almost impossible for a man to get into the papers without becoming an LL. D., but in England such honours are granted only grudgingly. So with military titles. To promote a war veteran from sergeant to colonel by acclamation, as is often done in the United States, is unknown over there. The English have nothing equivalent to the gaudy tin soldiers of our governors’ staffs, nor to the bespangled colonels and generals of the Knights Templer and Patriarchs Militant, nor to the nondescript captains and majors of our country towns. An English railroad conductor (railway guard) is never Captain, as he often is in the United States. Nor are military titles used by the police. Nor is it the custom to make every newspaper editor a colonel, as is done south of the Potomac. (In parts of the South even an auctioneer is a colonel!) Nor is an attorney-general or consul-general or postmaster-general called General. Nor are the glories of public office, after they have officially come to an end, embalmed in such clumsy quasi-titles as ex-United States Senator, ex-Judge of the Circuit Court of Appeals, ex-Federal Trade Commissioner and former Chief of the Fire Department.

But perhaps the greatest difference between English and American usage is presented by the Honorable. In the United States the title is applied loosely to all public officials of apparent respectability, from senators and ambassadors to the mayors of fifth-rate cities and the members of state legislatures, and with some show of official sanction to many of them, especially congressmen. But it is questionable whether this application has any actual legal standing, save perhaps in the case of certain judges, who are referred to as the Hon. in their own court records. Even the President of the United States, by law, is not the Honorable, but simply the President. In the First Congress the matter of his title was exhaustively debated; some members wanted to call him the Honorable and others proposed His Excellency and even His Highness. But the two Houses finally decided that it was “not proper to annex any style or title other than that expressed by the Constitution.” Congressmen themselves are not Honorables. True enough, the Congressional Record, in printing a set speech, calls it “Speech of Hon. John Jones” (without the the before the Hon.—a characteristic Americanism), but in reporting the ordinary remarks of a member it always calls him plain Mr. Nevertheless, a country congressman would be offended if his partisans, in announcing his appearance on the stump, did not prefix Hon. to his name. So would a state senator. So would a mayor or governor. I have seen the sergeant-at-arms of the United States Senate referred to as Hon. in the records of that body. More, it has been applied in the same place to Sam Gompers, the labor agitator. Yet more, the prefix is actually usurped by the Superintendent of State Prisons of New York.

In England the thing is more carefully ordered, and bogus Hons. are unknown. The prefix is applied to both sexes and belongs by law, inter alia, to all present or past maids of honor, to all justices of the High Court during their term of office, to the Scotch Lords of Session, to the sons and daughters of viscounts and barons, to the younger sons and all daughters of earls, and to the members of the legislative and executive councils of the colonies. But not to members of Parliament, though each is, in debate, an hon. gentleman. Even a member of the cabinet is not an Hon., though he is a Right Hon. by virtue of membership in the Privy Council, of which the Cabinet is legally merely a committee. This last honorific belongs, not only to privy councillors, but also to all peers lower than marquesses (those above are Most Hon.), to Lord Mayors during their terms of office, to the Lord Advocate and to the Lord Provosts of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Moreover, a peeress whose husband is a Right Hon. is a Right Hon. herself.

The British colonies follow the jealous usage of the mother-country. Even in Canada the lawless American example is not imitated. I have before me a “Table of Titles to be Used in Canada,” laid down by royal warrant, which lists those who are Hons. and those who are not Hons. in the utmost detail. Only privy councillors of Canada (not to be confused with imperial privy councillors) are permitted to retain the prefix after going out of office, though ancients who were legislative councillors at the time of the union, July 1, 1867, may still use it by a sort of courtesy, and former speakers of the Dominion Senate and House of Commons and various retired judges may do so on application to the King, countersigned by the governor-general. The following are lawfully the Hon., but only during their tenure of office: the solicitor-general, the speaker of the House of Commons, the presidents and speakers of the provincial legislatures, members of the executive councils of the provinces, the chief justice, the judges of the Supreme Courts of Ontario, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan and Alberta, the judges of the Courts of Appeal of Manitoba and British Columbia, the Chancery Court of Prince Edward Island, and the Circuit Court of Montreal—these, and no more. A lieutenant-governor of a province is not the Hon., but His Honor. The governor-general is His Excellency, and so is his wife, but in practise they usually have superior honorifics, and do not forget to demand their use.

But though an Englishman, and, following him, a colonial, is thus very careful to restrict the Hon. to its proper uses, he always insists, when he serves without pay as an officer of any organization, upon indicating his volunteer character by writing Hon. meaning honorary, before the name of his office. If he leaves it off it is a sign that he is a hireling. Thus, the agent of the New Zealand government in London, a paid officer, is simply the agent, but the agents at Brisbane and Adelaide, in Australia, who serve for the glory of it, are hon. agents. In writing to a Briton of condition one must be careful to put Esq., behind his name, and not Mr., before it. The English make a clear distinction between the two forms. Mr., on an envelope, indicates that the sender holds the receiver to be his inferior; one writes to Mr. John Jackson, one’s green-grocer, but to James Thompson, Esq., one’s neighbor. Any man who is entitled to the Esq. is a gentleman, by which an Englishman means a man of sound connections and what is regarded as dignified occupation—in brief, of ponderable social position. Thus a dentist, a shop-keeper or a clerk can never be a gentleman in England, even by courtesy, and the qualifications of an author, a musical conductor, a physician, or even a member of Parliament have to be established. But though he is thus enormously watchful of masculine dignity, an Englishman is quite careless in the use of lady. He speaks glibly of lady-clerks, lady-typists, lady-doctors and lady-inspectors. In America there is a strong disposition to use the word less and less, as is revealed by the substitution of saleswoman and salesgirl for the saleslady of yesteryear. But in England lady is still invariably used instead of woman in such compounds as lady-golfer, lady-secretary and lady-champion. The women’s singles, in English tennis, are always ladies’ singles; women’s wear, in English shops, is always ladies’ wear. Perhaps the cause of this distinction between lady and gentleman has been explained by Price Collier in “England and the English.” In England, according to Collier, the male is always first. His comfort goes before his wife’s comfort, and maybe his dignity also. Gentleman-clerk or gentleman-author would make an Englishman howl, though he uses gentleman-rider and gentleman-player in place of our amateur. So would the growing American custom of designating successive members of a private family bearing the same given name by the numerals proper to royalty. John Smith 3rd and William Simpson 4th are gravely received at Harvard; at Oxford they would be ragged unmercifully.

An Englishman, in speaking or writing of public officials, avoids those long and clumsy combinations of title and name which figure so copiously in American newspapers. Such locutions as Assistant-Secretary of the Interior Jones, Fourth Assistant Postmaster-General Brown, Inspector of Boilers Smith, Judge of the Appeal Tax Court Robinson, Chief Clerk of the Treasury Williams and Collaborating Epidermologist White are quite unknown to him. When he mentions a high official, such as the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, he does not think it necessary to add the man’s name; he simply says “the Secretary for Foreign Affairs” or “the Foreign Secretary.” And so with the Lord Chancellor, the Chief Justice, the Prime Minister, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Chief Rabbi, the First Lord (of the Admiralty), the Master of Pembroke (College), the Italian Ambassador, and so on. Certain ecclesiastical titles are sometimes coupled to surnames in the American manner, as in Dean Stanley, and Canon Wilberforce, but Prime Minister Lloyd-George would seem heavy and absurd. But in other directions the Englishman has certain clumsinesses of his own. Thus, in writing a letter to a relative stranger he sometimes begins it, not My dear Mr. Jones but My dear John Joseph Jones. He may even use such a form as My dear Secretary of War in place of the American My dear Mr. Secretary. In English usage, incidentally, My dear is more formal than Dear. In America this distinction tends to be lost, and such forms as My dear John Joseph Jones appear only as conscious imitations of English usage.

I have spoken of the American custom of dropping the definite article before Hon. It extends to Rev. and the like, and has the authority of very respectable usage behind it. The opening sentence of the Congressional Record is always: “The Chaplain, Rev. —, D. D., offered the following prayer.” When chaplains for the army or navy are confirmed by the Senate they always appear in the Record as Revs., never as the Revs. I also find the honorific without the article in the New International Encyclopædia, in the World Almanac, and in a widely-popular American grammar-book. So long ago as 1867, Gould protested against this elision as barbarous and idiotic, and drew up the following reductio ad absurdum:

  • At last annual meeting of Black Book Society, honorable John Smith took the chair, assisted by reverend John Brown and venerable John White. The office of secretary would have been filled by late John Green, but for his decease, which rendered him ineligible. His place was supplied by inevitable John Black. In the course of the evening eulogiums were pronounced on distinguished John Gray and notorious Joseph Brown. Marked compliment was also paid to able historian Joseph White, discriminating philosopher Joseph Green, and learned professor Joseph Black. But conspicuous speech of the evening was witty Joseph Gray’s apostrophe to eminent astronomer Jacob Brown, subtle logician Jacob White, etc., etc.
  • Richard Grant White, a year or two later, joined the attack in the New York Galaxy, and William Cullen Bryant included the omission of the article in his Index Expurgatorius, but these anathemas were as ineffective as Gould’s irony. The more careful American journals, of course, incline to the the, and I note that it is specifically ordained on the Style-sheet of the Century Magazine, but the overwhelming majority of American newspapers get along without it, and I have often noticed its omission on the sign-boards at church entrances. In England it is never omitted.