What do you call someone?


The question has arisen this week particularly because of the behaviour of Bob Diamond towards the MPs on the House of Commons Select Committee questioning him about the LIBOR scandal. He consistently called them by their first name, while they equally consistently and ostentatiously called him “Mr Diamond”. Is he genuinely on first name terms with all of these people, or was he following the recent internet tradition of calling every one in that way? Whatever, it came across that he was being arrogant, patronising, and insolent, while the MPs were deliberately distancing themselves from him by their formality – in what was, after all, a very formal situation.

I had a similar experience myself a few years ago when there was a public controversy over the circumstances of my brother’s death. I received an email from a Sky News producer wanting to interview me. It began “Hi Graham”. I didn’t reply for two years, by which time I reckoned that I was no longer of interest. My reply was scathing: “How dare you address me as a long-term friend when you had never heard of me until two days before, and during a period of acute stress for my family” (I paraphrase – I can’t remember the exact words I used). I wrote about this in an earlier post, and Stewart Clark and I had a complete section on writing letters and emails in our book Words: A User’s Guide.

The question arises, would Mr Diamond talk to the Queen and Prince Philip in the same way: “Liz” and “Phil(ip)”? I suspect not, but if you can address a perfect stranger by their first name, why not? I remember that when I lived in Norway, there were raised eyebrows among my Norwegian colleagues when they heard a Swedish television interviewer use the familiar “du” form to the then Swedish Prime Minister, Olof Palme. And this was in Scandinavia, a much more relaxed society than Britain.

It is one of the signs that politicians and journalists are becoming too close that the BBC’s Evan Davies, interviewing for the Today programme on Radio 4 frequently teeters on the brink of overfamiliarity with his political interviewees, and non-politicians are almost always given the first name treatment. Do they ask for that, or is it put like this: “Do you mind if I call you …?” to which it would seem churlish to answer “Yes”.

Another question of naming occurs regularly in “The Archers” (Radio 4 soap opera for those outside the UK). It may be to introduce new listeners to the characters so that they can sort them out, but in my experience it is not normal British English usage. The characters frequently refer to other members of the cast by their first name, even when talking about them to close members of the family. Thus “Ruth”, the wife of “David”, and mother of “Pip”, “Josh” and “Ben”, often calls “David”‘s mother “Jill”, even when talking to these characters. In my experience, which may now be old-fashioned, the correct form of address is “your Mum” or “your Gran” (or whatever term is used for the grandmother). The same mis-use (if it is that in 2012) applies across the programme. My own daughter calls her mother-in-law by her first name, but when talking to my son-in-law, she calls her “your Mum”, as I do in talking to my son-in-law. Perhaps my daughter is as old-fashioned as I am.

Now that I’ve displayed my low taste in radio, I’ll stop.


  1. He’s an American and they are Brits (even so, it sounds over the top, but it has to be part of it).

  2. n0aaa – would someone called before a similar Senate inquiry address the Senators by their first names?

  3. In the 2008 US Presidential Debates, Barack Obama kept addressing John McCain as “John”, which I felt was rather rude (even though I’m generally an Obama supporter). I suspect that it riled McCain up (maybe that was part of the strategy).

  4. Over here in Australia, the last prime minister called himself “Kevin”. Because his successor was of the same party it seemed natural to extend that to her, but she didn’t like it and portrayed it as sexist. However, her preference is “Prime Minister Gillard”, which is quite odd, because “Prime Minister” has never been a personal title before. The PM before Kevin was “Mr Howard”.

    (She also refers to the other ministers using “Minister” as a title, e.g. “Minister Swan, Minister Wong” instead of the correct Mr Swan, Senator Wong etc.—But then, I’ve always thought it was proper for cabinet members to refer to each other by their first names, as a sign of their solidarity, and so it seems very patronising.)

  5. Modes of address are often, but not always, about power. Mr. Diamond, in addition to putting the MP’s in what he thought was their proper place, was also illustrating the American tendency to put everyone on a level, as in, “We’re all equal in this country,” similar to the Australian rule of calling everyone male “mate.”
    I spent neary three years of my military service in central France, where everyone, other than my fellow soldiers, addressed me as “Monsieur.”
    When I returned to the United States, strangers immediately called me by my first name. I was highly offended. After a period of re-acculturation, it stopped bothering me.

  6. Where I grew up we called each other by our surnames or nicknames, so now I don’t really find it very informal when a stranger uses my first name. I consciously register the significance, but it doesn’t have any emotional impact on me one way or the other.

  7. @ Paul. At my junior school (up to age 11), we were all called, and called each other, by given names. At my secondary school, in the 1960s, this changed to all surnames. In both schools all teachers were “Sir” or “Miss”. At university, the lecturers called us “Mr” or “Miss/Mrs” (depending on marital status) with family name, although students addressed each other by given names. Earlier in the 20th century, it had been normal for the more elevated sections of society to address each other by surname, so we find Robert Bridges writing to John Reith “Dear Reith”, although I suspect that Reith replied “Dear Mr Bridges” – feeling his inferiority. Letters between Bridges and Bernard Shaw would be more equal – “Dear Shaw” and “Dear Bridges”. This was the pattern continued at my school, which was a grammar school. I suspect that when it became a comprehensive, everything changed.

    @ Felix. “President” and “Senator” in the US are titles, as well as positions. This usage is spreading to the rest of the English-speaking world, even though “Prime Minister” is not an official title, but an office. Similarly the American use of “Rev.” with a bare family name, incorrect according to British usage guides, which insist that “Mr” should follow “Rev.”, is becoming common in Britain.

  8. The Swedish familiar “du” form of address spread from intimate to general during the 1960s. They had previously only had one way of addressing strangers directly, in the third person using either a name or occupation: “would the plumber please fix that pipe”. That worked fine in small communities where everyone knew each other, but by the 1960s Sweden had become fully urbanized, and talking to the strangers next door got too complicated: “has the neighbour noticed the lift isn’t working?”. And the way was prepared – the use of “du” was already generalized among school pupils, students and workmates, also in some dialects.

  9. Pingback: Omniglot blog » Blog Archive » What should I call you?

  10. In a conversation with Prince Charles, Australian entertainment journalist Ian “Molly” Meldum referred to the Queen as “your mum”, to which Prince Charles replied, “Are you referring to Her Majesty the Queen?”. It was before the interview and not broadcast, but it did cause Meldrum to freak out and generally stuff up the whole thing.

  11. Commenting only on paragraph 3 of your original piece, Graham – and Sidney has got there before me – Olof Palme himself did a lot to popularise the familiar “du” form of address when in office, so he would have approved of a TV interviewer using that form to him. Although an aristocrat by background, Palme strove to be all things to all men, and he and his wife Lisbeth were in the Stockholm phonebook and therefore accessible to anyone who wanted to ring them up. I lived in Sweden from 1970-72 and my then Swedish girlfriend thought Palme was great. His murder was a major trauma in Swedish public life, and the subsequent revelations about shady arms deals led to a loss of innocence and deep sense of betrayal among many left-of-centre Swedes.


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