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What’s In An Honorific?

By Mary Smythe, author of Pride Before A Fall

What, indeed? Well, for starters, what you call someone—and what they call you—says quite a lot about your relationship to that person. In Pride Before a Fall, as well as my other books, I am absolutely scrupulous—one might even say nit-picky—about how my characters refer to one another. Elizabeth says it herself in chapter five:


“You forget yourself, sir,” Elizabeth countered, a sharp chill in her tone. “I have not yet accepted any proposal you have offered, and am currently not inclined to do so. Quite to the contrary, I have refused you. Please check your presumption in regard to our home and our children.”


“Elizabeth.” Darcy moved towards where she stood apart from him. Her eyes narrowed slightly at, he assumed, his further presumption of using her Christian name.


If Darcy refers to Elizabeth by her given name, he had darn well better have earned the privilege. If Elizabeth calls Darcy ‘Fitzwilliam’, then you know that the romance is on. What names they use, whether or not there’s an honorific attached when they use them, says everything about what they mean to one another, and so it’s important to get it exactly right.

Fortunately, there was a specific structure to what someone was called and by whom.


Honorifics were commonly used, especially with people whom one did not know well and/or required a certain social distance from (such as unmarried ladies and gentlemen). Though today we’re pretty lax when it comes to such things, back in the regency era it would be considered incredibly rude to simply call someone by their familiar title without prior invitation or a familial connection to authorize it. You might as well spit in their eye because you’ve just offended them terribly. Think of Emma’s reaction to Mrs Elton dropping the ‘Mr’ from Mr Knightley in Emma: “Absolutely insufferable! Knightley! I could not have believed it. Knightley! Never seen him in her life before, and call him Knightley!”

She’s absolutely livid. It ably shows Mrs Elton for what she is–“A little upstart, vulgar being…and all her airs of pert pretension and under-bred finery. Actually to discover Mr Knightley is a gentleman! I doubt whether he will return the compliment, and discover her to be a lady”–and offends Emma’s sense of propriety, decorum and general manners. Emma herself might be a bit of a stickler for class distinctions, but she’s not wrong about Mrs Elton overstepping herself with a relative stranger.


But what happens when there’s more than one Miss in a single family, as with the Bennets? Or more than a single Mr? What do you do then?


For the Gentlemen:

  • Mr Last Name = the most senior male member of his household and/or the only one of his household present, usually the father/landholder but sometimes the eldest son if dear old dad has a title (Mr Bertram from Mansfield Park falls into this slim category).

  • Mr Given Name + Last Name = when there’s more than one Mr with the same family name, this option is pulled out to avoid confusion (you might recall Mary Crawford complaining about having to refer to Edmund as ‘Mr Edmund Bertram’ when his elder brother is around)

  • Dr Last Name = a man who has attained a doctorate and has gone to the trouble of sparing everyone else around him the confusion of differentiating him from his brothers (bless him), like Dr Grant in Mansfield Park.

  • Last Name or Given Name = the greatest intimacy of all, dropping the honorific. This is only to be used between parties who are related by blood, married or otherwise close friends. A man might refer to another man who is his intimate friend by his Last Name only, as a woman (in private) might refer to her brother, good friend or husband by his Given Name alone. To do so otherwise is a show of disrespect—which might also be useful in the right narrative instance.

For the Ladies:

  • Mrs Last Name = a married woman (this is an easy one)

  • Miss Last Name = the eldest daughter of a family, or the only daughter in attendance (i.e., when Jane isn’t around, Elizabeth would be ‘Miss Bennet’ and even Lydia would be ‘Miss Bennet’ at Brighton as the only Bennet sister in proximity)

  • Miss Given Name = younger daughters (in a family such as the Bennets, this has to save everyone a lot of time and confusion)

  • Given Name = as with the gentlemen above, only the greatest of intimacies between two parties can account for the use of a Given Name, such as sisters or close friends (i.e., Elizabeth Bennet and Charlotte Lucas call one another by their Given Names, but both refer to Anne de Bourgh as Miss de Bourgh)

Good Lord, why does it need to be so complicated? Partly because there’s always a family with ten children bent on confusing us all—looking at you, Morlands—but mostly because what you call someone, and what they call you, implies a certain relationship between the two of you. If I were to call you Miss So-and-So, others might assume that we share a distant, polite relationship. If I were to call you by your Given Name alone, they would infer something closer, like a longstanding friendship or even blood connection. Not that it’s strictly polite to speak of someone in intimate terms out in public; even married couples and close friends refer to one another by honorifics when out in society and only banter about Given Names in private. In any case, what honorifics one character uses with another are extremely important to characterization in regency stories where mores are more strict and everyone is more careful about what they portray to society.


There’s also a certain amount of personal protection in adhering to the honorific rules, as Austen illustrates for us in Northanger Abbey between Catherine Morland and Isabella Thorpe. “The progress of the friendship between Catherine and Isabella was quick…They called each other by their Christian name…” a short time after becoming acquainted. Given that Isabella turns out to be a false friend with mercenary ambitions towards Catherine’s brother, we can assume that in becoming so immediately intimate is grooming behavior on Isabella’s part. She wants to inveigle herself with the sister of the man she thinks is an eligible catch and so fast-tracks their friendship. Catherine’s intimacy with Eleanor Tilney, on the other hand, progresses at a more natural rate and so it’s much later when they trade Given Names.


These days, we’re far more likely to ditch the polite titles and simply refer to one another by our Given Names. It’s easy, there’s less confusion (unless there happens to be twenty Jacksons or Jennifers nearby) and there’s generally less compulsion to stand upon ceremony with one another. Aside from doctors and teachers, we’re pretty relaxed; when was the last time you called your boss Mr/Miss So-and-So? I don’t know about you, but I’ve always called them by their Given Name, even as a teenager. However, there are still cultures out there which embrace honorifics today, which I discovered while writing for Anime fandoms a while back.


In Japan—and various other Asian cultures—it’s customary to use an honorific system similar to that of Regency England. Two cultures separated by time and distance share naming conventions in common. Go figure. Here’s the brief lowdown of Japanese honorifics:

  • Family/Given Name-san – denotes respect and polite distance, like Mr or Miss; the use of a person’s family name or given name further implies a degree of intimacy. (Mary-san would be for an equal acquaintance, Smythe-san for a superior)

  • Family/Given Name-chan – chan means “cute” or “little” and thus denotes a certain amount of affection, though it can also be used when referring to someone younger or otherwise socially inferior. (Mary-chan would mean that we’re close friends, Smythe-chan probably means a bit more distance, like we’re classmates or I’m younger than you but we have no special relationship)

  • Family/Given Name-kun – the more masculine form of “chan,” yet it can still be used for girls on occasion (just to make it more difficult, I assume)

  • Family/Given Name-sama – used when -san is just not enough, such as for the emperor or a god/goddess. Might also be used simply to denote more than the usual amount of respect, such as when someone is obsessively in love with someone else (imagine Miss Bingley referring to Mr Darcy as Darcy-sama with little hearts in her eyes and you’ve got the idea)

Much as with Regency honorifics, it gets far more complicated the deeper you dive, but you can clearly see similarities, even if there’s less gender specificity here. You might use -san in place of Mr or Miss, for instance, or -sama in place of Lord/Lady/Highness.

I’ve often wondered why these systems are so alike and I have a few theories. Both Regency England and modern Japan are patriarchal societies, and each had (or has) a largely homogeneous population, keeping cultural/racial complications to a minimum. Mostly, though, I think having a similarly strict set of social mores and a scrupulous population bent on maintaining proper public deportment plays a prominent role. In Japanese society as in Regency England, the way one behaves is often under scrutiny and the person, as well as their family, can be shamed for not adhering to traditional manners and values. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it still differs from our current western ideals of ‘mind your own business and I’ll mind mine.’ There are nosy people in every culture, but such societal expectations likely have much weight in determining how strictly we adhere to linguistic propriety.






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