I’m currently reading The Terror, an intriguing and aptly-titled novel based loosely on the real-life mid-19th century lost Franklin expedition, which set out to find the fabled Northwest Passage. Franklin refers to Sir John Franklin, the expedition’s leader. Throughout the book, he’s referred to as Sir John Franklin, and after a few times I thought that was interesting because he also of course had a naval rank, which could be used alongside Sir. But would it come before or after Sir?
It would in fact, come before Sir, as per military tradition, so his full title was Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin. Which would of course be a bit much to write every time he’s mentioned.
I’ve always found it curious that for military officers who are knighted, their military rank is mentioned before Sir. With knighthood being such an ultimate honour, it seems odd to me that it doesn’t come first. I’m sure there’s a logic to it. Maybe it’s to remind the individual of their military duties, and not to get too carried away with being a knight.
The same also applies to academic titles, like Professor, but not Doctor. Knighted doctors are just referred to Sir.
To be honest, I’ve always found the idea of such titles a bit silly, and have never looked for too much logic in it. I get the idea of having different titles to denote rank in military organisations, but the idea of being a Sir, a knight, in the modern world just seems a bit silly to me. Sure, recognise people who’ve made significant achievements, but give them money or a free holiday or something, instead of a title.
But of course, Sir doesn’t always have such lordly airs. Just today I was thinking about it again. I was waiting to go into an art installation (it was this: I can’t think of a more specific term to describe it – it was brilliant though). When it was my turn to go in, the woman working there said Would you like to follow me, sir?
I found it a little surprising, as I’d been thinking about the word Sir, but also because I’m not used to being addressed as Sir. Partly because I’m clearly a thuggish lout undeserving of such politeness, and partly because using it in this way, as a polite form of address, has always seemed a very American phenomenon.
Along with its female equivalent Ma’am, we just don’t really use it here. I think it’s part of the culture of extreme politeness in the service industry in the United States which you don’t quite find in other English-speaking countries. Although it seems it’s much more common in Southern states than Northern, perhaps part of the fabled Southern hospitality.
We can sometimes be a bit snobby about the overt politeness and friendliness of the American service industry. Oh, I hate when they say Have a good day, it’s so fake! and so on. Which I understand, but I also don’t mind it. I mean, we know the person doesn’t really care about whether or not we have a good day, but it’s just one of the basic civilities that help to make the world a slightly more pleasant place, like saying thank you to the bus driver.
And Sir and Ma’am can be quite useful. Without them, we non-Americans can find it hard to get the attention of people we don’t know. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people (myself included) awkwardly and completely failing to get someone’s attention by saying Er, sorry? Excuse me, sorry? All the while resisting the urge to say, Sorry, you in the blue shirt, or You, with the weird curly hair. Using Sir or Ma’am at least helps us specify if we’re talking to a man or woman, which is useful if there are quite a few people around. Plus, Excuse me, sir? is much more than authorative than just Excuse me?
And no matter your feelings on honours and titles, it does feel nice to be addressed as a knight, just for a moment, doesn’t it?