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Terms of address

“Let me introduce you to the delightful conventions of the English language. How you address someone tells you a lot about them." Karan Thapar examines...

india Updated: May 10, 2008 23:09 IST

Aren’t you being pedantic?” Pertie asked. “How does it matter if the invitation card says ‘Mr and Mrs’ or ‘Mrs and Mr’? And, anyway, ‘Mrs and Mr Karan Thapar’ is far more logical than the other way around. After all, you’re Karan Thapar. Your wife’s not!”

“Ah,” I replied, smiling at the rich opportunity Pertie had just opened up. “Let me introduce you to the delightful conventions of the English language. How you address someone tells you a lot about them. And when you know, you can avoid silly mistakes.”

“Such as?” Pertie responded. He sounded disbelieving.

“Well, ‘Mr and Mrs Karan Thapar’ tells you they’re a married couple and she’s married to Karan Thapar. In fact, if you’re addressing her on her own then, whilst her marriage is intact, the correct form is ‘Mrs Karan Thapar’. Only if she’s widowed or divorced would you call her ‘Mrs Nisha Thapar’.”

“And how would knowing this help you avoid a mistake?”

“Simple. You would never ask Mrs Nisha Thapar how her husband is. Nor would you ever assume Mrs Karan Thapar could be widowed or divorced.”

“How do you address a couple if one of them has an important job such as the prime minister? For example, Dr Singh and his wife.”

“Good question”, I shot back, “because the PMO always gets it wrong. It should be the Prime Minister and Mrs Manmohan Singh. But their invitations always say the Prime Minister and Mrs Gursharan Kaur. It’s not an error western ambassadors make. And the Pakistanis don’t either!”

“Now what about ‘Ms’? What does that mean?”

“Basically it’s a modern day attempt to get around the alleged sexist implication of ‘Mrs’. Women who don’t want their marital status identified or prefer to use their maiden name use ‘Ms’.”

“Like Benazir Bhutto?”

“Precisely but, again, people were often confused in her case. She was either ‘Ms Bhutto’ or ‘Mrs Zardari’. Yet many referred to her as ‘Mrs Bhutto’ which she definitely was not. Mrs Bhutto could be her mother or her sisters-in-law but never Benazir herself. Equally, you couldn’t possibly call her ‘Ms Zardari’. That would be one off her daughters.”

“Hmmm,” said Pertie, almost thoughtfully. I could sense he was intrigued. “How far does this convention go?”

“Pretty far. For example, do you know the difference between Princess Diana and Princess Charles?”

Pertie burst out laughing. I guess he thought Princess Charles was absurd.

“The two different names reveal whether she was born a princess or became one by marrying a prince. The correct form for Diana was Princess Charles or the Princess of Wales. Anne, on the other hand, is Princess Anne.”

“And what was the correct from of address after Diana’s marriage broke up?”

“Because she divorced it became Diana, Princess of Wales. Had Charles died whilst the marriage was intact she would also be known as the Dowager Princess of Wales.”

“The Brits are amazing. I can’t believe they’ve defined things so minutely.”

“Actually,” I interrupted, anxious to show off a little more, “they’ve gone a lot further. Do you know the difference between Lord Churchill and Lord Randolph Churchill? Lord and Surname tells you he’s a peer in his own right. Lord Christian-name Surname tells you he’s the second son of a duke or marquess with the courtesy title lord.”

Pertie suddenly jumped up. “Is that why there have been blokes in the House of Commons with the title lord?”

“Indeed,” I gasped, amazed that he should know this. Pertie can be full of surprises. “Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston’s dad, was one such. They weren’t peers but only sons of and therefore commoners.”

“But there’s one problem.” This time he was smiling with glee. “A lot of this is created around women. How do you tell if a man is married or single?”

Pertie had put his finger on the weakness of this traditional English nomenclature. “You can’t,” I had to concede. “I guess it wasn’t considered significant. That’s one of the differences the English make between the sexes!”