Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Personal and Epistolary Addresses

A constant reader of the Easy Chair has come to it with a difficulty which, at the generous Christmas-tide, we hope his fellow-readers will join us in helping solve: they may, if they like, regard it as a merry jest of the patron saint of the day, a sort of riddle thrown upon the table at the general feast for each to try his wits upon

"Across the walnuts and the wine."

"How," this puzzled spirit has asked, "shall I address a friend of mine who, besides being a person of civil condition, with a right to the respect that we like to show people of standing in directing our letters to them, has the distinction of being a doctor of philosophy, of letters, and of laws by the vote of several great universities? Shall I greet him as, say, Smythe Johnes, Esq., or Dr. Smythe Johnes, or Smythe Johnes, Ph.D., Litt.D., LL.D., or simply Mr. Smythe Johnes?"

Decidedly, we should answer, to begin with, not "Mr. Smythe Johnes" if you wish to keep the finest bloom on your friendship with any man who knows the world. He will much prefer being addressed simply "Smythe Johnes," with his street and number, for he feels himself classed by your "Mr. Smythe Johnes" with all those Mr. Smythe Johneses whom he loves and honors in their quality of tradesmen and working-men, but does not hold of quite the same social rank as himself. After our revolt in essentials from the English in the eighteenth century, we are now conforming more and more in the twentieth to their usages in non-essentials, and the English always write Smythe Johnes, Esq., or Dr. Smythe Johnes or the like, unless Mr. Smythe Johnes is in trade or below it. They, indeed, sometimes carry their scruple so far that they will address him as Mr. Smythe Johnes at his place of business, and Smythe Johnes, Esq., at his private residence.

The English, who like their taffy thick and slab, and who, if one of them happens to be the Earl of Tolloller, are not richly enough satisfied to be so accosted by letter, but exact some such address as The Right Honorable the Earl of Tolloller, all like distinctions in their taffy, and are offended if you give them a commoner sort than they think their due. But the Americans, who pretend to a manlier self-respect, had once pretty generally decided upon Mr. Smythe Johnes as the right direction for his letters. They argued that Esquire was the proper address for lawyers, apparently because lawyers are so commonly called Squire in the simpler life. In the disuse of the older form of Armiger they forgot that inter arma silent leges, and that Esquire was logically as unfit for lawyers as for civil doctors, divines, or mediciners. He of the Easy Chair, when an editor long ago, yielded to the prevalent American misrendering for a time, and indiscriminately addressed all his contributors as "Mr." One of them, the most liberal of them in principle, bore the ignominy for about a year, and then he protested. After that the young editor (he was then almost as young as any one now writing deathless fiction) indiscriminately addressed his contributors as Esq. Yet he had an abiding sense of the absurdity in directing letters to John G. Whittier, Esq., for if the poet was truly a Friend and an abhorrer of war, he could not be hailed Armiger without something like insult.

With doctors of divinity the question is not so vexing or vexed; but it is said that of late a lion is rising in the way of rightly addressing doctors of medicine. If you wish to be attended by a physician who pays all visits after nightfall in evening dress, it is said that you are now to write Smythe Johnes, M.D., Esq., and not Dr. Smythe Johnes, as formerly. In England, the source of all our ceremonial woes, you cannot call a surgeon "doctor" without offence; he is Mr. Smythe Johnes when spoken to, but whether he is Mr. Smythe Johnes through the post, Heaven knows.

It is a thousand pities that when we cut ourselves off from that troubled source politically, we did not dam it up in all the things of etiquette. We indeed struck for freedom and sense at the very highest point, and began at once to write George Washington, President, as we still write William H. Taft, President. The Chief Magistrate is offered no taffy in our nation, or perhaps the word President is held to be taffy enough and to spare; for only the Governor of Massachusetts is legally even so much as Excellency. Yet by usage you are expected to address all ambassadors and ministers as Excellencies, and all persons in public office from members of Congress and of the Cabinet down to the lowest legislative or judicial functionaries as Honorables. This simplifies the task of directing envelopes to them, and, if a man once holds military rank in any peace establishment, he makes life a little easier for his correspondents by remaining General, or Captain, or Admiral, or Commander. You cannot Mister him, and you cannot Esquire him, and there is, therefore, no question as to what you shall superscribe him.

A score of years ago two friends, now, alas! both doctors of philosophy, of letters, and of laws, agreed to superscribe their letters simply Smythe Johnes and Johnes Smythe respectively, without any vain prefix or affix. They kept up this good custom till in process of time they went to Europe for prolonged sojourns, and there corrupted their manners, so that when they came home they began addressing each other as Esq., and have done so ever since. Neither is any the better for the honors they exchange on the envelopes they do not look at, and doubtless if mankind could be brought to the renunciation of the vain prefixes and affixes which these friends once disused the race would be none the worse for it, but all the better. One prints Mr. Smythe Johnes on one's visiting-card because it passes through the hands of a menial who is not to be supposed for a moment to announce plain Smythe Johnes; but it is the United States post-office which delivers the letters of Smythe Johnes, and they can suffer no contamination from a service which conveys the letters of plain William H. Taft to him with merely the explanatory affix of President, lest they should go to some other William H. Taft.

Undoubtedly the address of a person by the name with which he was christened can convey no shadow of disrespect. The Society of Friends understood this from the beginning, and they felt that they were wanting in no essential civility when they refused name-honor as well as hat-honor to all and every. They remained covered in the highest presences, and addressed each by his Christian name, without conveying slight; so that a King and Queen of England, who had once questioned whether they could suffer themselves to be called Thy Majesty instead of Your Majesty by certain Quakers, found it no derogation of their dignity to be saluted as Friend George and Friend Charlotte. The signory of the proudest republic in the world held that their family names were of sufficiency to which titles could add nothing, and the Venetian who called himself Loredano, or Gradenigo, or Morosini, or Renier, or Rezzonico did not ask to be called differently. In our own day a lady of the ancient and splendid family of the Peruzzi in Florence denied that the title of count existed in it or need exist: "Ognuno può essere conte: Peruzzi, no." ("Any one may be a count; but not a Peruzzi.") In like manner such names as Lincoln and Franklin, and Washington and Grant, and Longfellow and Bryant could have gained nothing by Mr. before them or Esq. after them. Doctor Socrates or Doctor Seneca would not have descended to us in higher regard with the help of these titles; and Rear-Admiral Themistocles or Major-General Epaminondas could not have had greater glory from the survival of parchments so directed to them.

The Venetian nobles who disdained titles came in process of time to be saluted as Illustrissimo; but in process of time this address when used orally began to shed its syllables till Illustrissimo became Lustrissimo, and then Strissimo, and at last Striss, when perhaps the family name again sufficed. So with us, Doctor has familiarly become "Doc," and Captain, "Cap," until one might rather have no title at all. Mr. itself is a grotesque malformation of a better word, and Miss is a silly shortening of the fine form of Mistress. This, pronounced Misses, can hardly add dignity to the name of the lady addressed, though doubtless it cannot be disused till we are all of the Society of Friends. The popular necessity has resulted in the vulgar vocative use of Lady, but the same use of Gentleman has not even a vulgar success, though it is not unknown. You may say, with your hand on the bell-strap, "Step lively, lady," but you cannot say, "Step lively, gentleman," and the fine old vocative "Sir" is quite obsolete. We ourselves remember it on the tongues of two elderly men who greeted each other with "Sir!" and "Sir!" when they met; and "Step lively, sir," might convey the same delicate regard from the trolley conductor as "Step lively, lady." Sir might look very well on the back of a letter; Smythe Johnes, Sir, would on some accounts be preferable to Smythe Johnes, Esq., and, oddly enough, it would be less archaic.

Such of our readers as have dined with the late Queen or the present King of England will recall how much it eased the yoke of ceremony to say to the sovereign, "Yes, ma'am," or "Yes, sir," as the use is, instead of your Majesty. But to others you cannot say "Yes, ma'am," or "Yes, sir," unless you are in that station of life to which you would be very sorry it had pleased God to call you. Yet these forms seem undeniably fit when used by the young to their elders, if the difference of years is great enough.

The difficulty remains, however. You cannot as yet write on an envelope, Smythe Johnes, Sir, or Mary Johnes, Lady; and, in view of this fact, we find ourselves no nearer the solution of our constant reader's difficulty than we were at first. The Socialists, who wish to simplify themselves and others, would address Mr. Johnes as Comrade Smythe Johnes, but could they address Mrs. Johnes as Comradess? We fancy not; besides, Comrade suggests arms and bloodshed, which is hardly the meaning of the red flag of brotherhood, and at the best Comrade looks affected and sounds even more so. Friend would be better, but orally, on the lips of non-Quakers, it has an effect of patronage, though no one could rightly feel slight in a letter addressed to him as Friend Smythe Johnes.

It is wonderful to consider how the ancients apparently got on without the use of any sort of prefix or affix to their names on the roll of parchment or fold of papyrus addressed to them. For all we know, Cæsar was simply C. Julius Cæsar to his correspondents, and Pericles was yet more simply Pericles to the least of his fellow-citizens. These historical personages may have had the number of their houses inscribed on their letters; or Pericles might have had Son of Xanthippus added to his name for purposes of identification; but apparently he managed quite as well as our Presidents, without anything equivalent to Excellency or Hon. or Mr. or Esq. To be sure, with the decline of

"The glory that was Greece

And the grandeur that was Rome,"

name-honors crept in more and more. It was then not only politer but much safer to address your petition To the Divine Domitian, or To the Divine Nero, than to greet those emperors by the mere given names which were not yet Christian; probably it would not have been enough to add Cæsar to the last name, though Cæsar seems to have finally served the turn of Esq., for all the right that the emperors had to bear it. In the Eastern Empire, we are not ready to say what was the correct style for imperial dignitaries; but among the sovereigns who divided the Roman state and inherited its splendor, some rulers came to be sacred majesties, though this is still a sensible remove from divine.

However, our present difficulty is with that vast average who in common parlance are Mr. and Mrs. Smythe Johnes. How shall they be styled on the backs of their letters? How shall Mrs. Smythe Johnes especially, in signing herself Mary Johnes, indicate that she is not Miss Mary but Mrs. Smythe Johnes? When she is left a widow, how soon does she cease to be Mrs. Smythe Johnes and become Mrs. Mary? Is it requisite to write in the case of any literary doctorate, Smythe Johnes, LL.D., or Litt.D., or Ph.D., or is it sufficient to write Dr. before his name? In the case of a divine, do you put Rev. Dr. before the name, or Rev. before it and D.D. after it? These are important questions, or, if they are not important, they are at least interesting. Among the vast mass of unceremonied, or call it unmannered, Americans the receiver of a letter probably knows no better than the sender how it should be addressed; but in the rarer case in which he does know, his self-respect or his self-love is wounded if it is misaddressed. It is something like having your name misspelled, though of course not so bad as that, quite; and every one would be glad to avoid the chance of it.

The matter is very delicate and can hardly be managed by legislation, as it was on the point of our pen to suggest it should be. The first French Republic, one and indivisible, decreed a really charming form of address, which could be used without offence to the self-love or the self-respect of any one. Citoyen for all men and Citoyenne for all women was absolutely tasteful, modest, and dignified; but some things, though they are such kindred things, cannot be done as well as others. The same imaginative commonwealth invented a decimal chronology, and a new era, very handy and very clear; but the old week of seven days came back and replaced the week of ten days, and the Year of our Lord resumed the place of the Year of the Republic, as Monsieur and Madame returned victorious over Citoyen and Citoyenne. Yet the reform of weights and measures, when once established, continued, and spread from France to most other countries—to nearly all, indeed, less stupid than Great Britain and the United States—so that the whole civilized world now counts in grammes and metres. What can be the fine difference? Here is a pretty inquiry for the psychologist, who has an opportunity to prove himself practically useful. Is it that grammes and metres are less personal than week-days and addresses? That can hardly be, or else the Society of Friends could not have so absolutely substituted First Day and Second Day, etc., for the old heathen names of our week-days, and could not have successfully refused all name-honor whatsoever in addressing their fellow-mortals.

But titles have come back full-tide in the third French Republic, one and indivisible, so that anybody may wear them, though the oldest nobility are officially and legally known only by their Christian and family names, without any prefix. This is practically returning to Citoyen and Citoyenne, and it almost gives us the courage to suggest the experiment of Citizen and Citizenne as a proper address on the letters of American republicans. The matter might be referred to a Board, something like that of the Simplified Spelling Board, though we should not like to be included in a committee whose members must be prepared to take their lives in their hands, or, short of death, to suffer every manner of shame at the hands of our journalists and their correspondents. Short of the adoption of Citizen and Citizenne, we have no choice but to address one another by our given names and surnames merely, unless we prefer to remain in our present confusion of Mr. and Esq. In a very little while, we dare say, no lady or gentleman would mind being so addressed on his or her letters; but perhaps some men and women might. Now that we no longer use pets names so much, except among the very highest of our noblesse, where there are still Jimmies and Mamies, we believe, plain Gladys Smythe or Reginald Johnes would be the usual superscription. Such an address could bring no discomfort to the recipient (a beautiful word, very proper in this connection), and if it could once be generally adopted it would save a great deal of anxiety. The lady's condition could be indicated by the suffix Spinster, in the case of her being single; if married, the initials of her husband's given names could be added.

William Dean Howells