First names, and what they tell us - Alexander McCall Smith

Some years ago a German friend, a distinguished professor who is also a keen sportsman, was watching a football game with a colleague at the colleague’s house.

When politicians are known by their first name, it indicates they are cutting through with the public

The German national team was playing, and things were not going well from the German point of view. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly, Germany’s fortunes changed and the ball was kicked into goal. This brought a delighted response from the colleague, who leapt out of his chair and shouted, ‘Oh look, Reinhard, Germany’s scored a goal!”

This outburst, so understandable in the circumstances, was nonetheless a terrible solecism. Shamefaced, the perpetrator said, “I’m terribly sorry – I used your first name.” They had known one another for only ten years.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Fortunately, my friend behaved magnanimously. “That doesn’t matter,” he said. “You were excited. Perhaps we might move to first names now.”

After this magnificent show of liberality, the two then did what is proper in the circumstances, which is to drink a formal toast to Brüderschaft and to move, as suggested, to first name terms, rather than addressing one another as Herr whatever.

Germany has changed, and this sort of situation might not occur quite so often today, but it does raise issues of how we should address one another. At one extreme is the sort of formality once practised in Germany – and in other countries where a distinction is maintained between familiar and formal personal pronouns – and at the other is the loose informality of societies where any acquaintanceship starts off on first name terms. A few decades ago, we began to shift on that scale, but what does that mean for the surname? Has that become a largely ornamental appendage, useful only as a means of being identified by the various bureaucracies with which we have to deal?

When I was a boy, you addressed all adults as Mr or Mrs followed by their surname. If the adults in question were particularly close family friends, they might become Uncle or Aunt. First names were used for those in one’s own age group: if you were twenty, for instance, you called somebody of forty Mr, Mrs or Miss, unless you knew them very well and had been asked to use their first name. That was then. Now children are taught to call their parents’ friends by their first names – which is much more natural, and warmer too. The result is that relations across age divides are much easier. A positive development.

Of course there was always the term sir and, although it seems even more formal, madam. Sir remains a handy way of indicating respect – and not in any obsequious way. If you travel to the American Midwest, where manners are particularly heeded, you will, if male, be addressed as sir in most ordinary encounters. This, of course, is something that would not surprise the French, who are fortunate in having monsieur and madame as regular, convenient forms of address. Sir needs a comeback in the English-speaking world. I have noticed, when with friends in the United States, that they will use sir when addressing somebody lower down on the pecking order than themselves. This is nothing other than a desire to indicate respect for the other and, one imagines, it is well received by those who might otherwise feel undervalued or taken for granted. And lest one discount such matters as being unimportant, when you hear, as you may in Africa, somebody address a stranger as my brother, you realise how powerful such seemingly small things may be. How significant it is to be called brother or sister in a world where anonymity is the norm and where so many people feel unappreciated, lonely or marginalised.

The shift to informality has its frustrating side. Nowadays, if you ask somebody his or her name, you are usually given only the first name. People say I’m John or I’m Sue, and do not explain which John or Sue they are. There are rather a lot of Johns and Sues and the point about the surname is that it narrows it down. The surname also does a lot of work in locating people, especially in smaller towns or in the country, where your surname places you. If you live in Ambridge, for instance, and your surname is Archer, that immediately attaches you to a past. The same is true in rural Scotland. In the Borders, if you bear one of a number of Border surnames your family’s distinguished background as successful cattle thieves will be made clear. Similarly, in rural Scotland you might – helpfully – be known by the name of your farm. That is a great tradition, linking people to land, and is the opposite of the chilling anonymity of modern urban life. You may wish to rise above all that, of course, and just be John or Sue simpliciter. In fact, Simpliciter is rather a nice surname, and might be adopted by people who are fed up with the stock surnames that we tend to use.

Stock names do become somewhat tedious and over-used. In Botswana, people invent names all the time, with the result that first names are frequently unique. Often, they are not particularly well-chosen. I met somebody who rejoiced under a very beautiful, mellifluous-sounding Setswana name. When I asked him what his name meant, he told me, with some embarrassment, that it could be translated as Look out, the police have arrived.

It is interesting to observe how first names are used in politics. When a politician comes to be known mainly by his or her first name, that is a sign that he or she is registering with the public – in one way or another. We all remember who Maggie was. Now there is somebody called Boris. And many people talk, with approval, of Nicola. Boris, though is Boris only in England. In Scotland he is pointedly Boris Johnson, which is quite different, and that fact tells us something. And there used to be Tam, who was loved by many, and who could frighten Maggie with his questions about Argentinian ships. He also had a West Lothian Question, which is another matter altogether. Gordon Brown is an interesting case. He has remained Gordon Brown – which is indicative of the respect in which he has been and is still widely held. He is sometimes called Broon, of course, which is a friendly form of Brown. Mr Gove, who seems a very courteous man, is usually referred to as Mr Gove. It is interesting that none of these politicians has ever been called Uncle or Aunt. That honour was reserved for Stalin, who was widely called Uncle Joe. Not a good precedent.


Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.