First Names and What They Tell Us – Alexander McCall Smith


When politicians are known by first name, it indicates they are making their way with the public

The German national team were 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 sent back into the goal. This elicited a delighted response from the colleague, who jumped out of his chair and shouted: “Oh look, Reinhard, Germany have scored a goal!”

This explosion, so understandable under the circumstances, was nonetheless a terrible solecism. Ashamed, the abuser said, “I’m so sorry – I used your first name.” They had known each other for only ten years.

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Fortunately, my friend behaved magnanimously. “It doesn’t matter,” he says. “You were excited. Maybe we could go to first names now.

After this magnificent show of liberality, the two then did what was appropriate in the circumstances, which is to give a formal toast to Brüderschaft and switch, as suggested, to first names, rather than addressing one to one. the other like Herr anything.

Germany has changed, and this sort of thing might not happen as often today, but it does raise the question of how we should approach each other. At one extreme is the kind of formality once practiced in Germany – and other countries where a distinction is maintained between familiar and formal personal pronouns – and at the other is the loose informality of societies where all knowledge begins. on first name terms. A few decades ago we started to change on this scale, but what does that mean for the last name? Has it become a largely ornamental appendix, useful only as a means of being identified by the various bureaucracies we deal with?

When I was little, you addressed all adults by Mr. or Mrs. followed by their last name. If the adults in question were particularly close friends of the family, they could become an uncle or aunt. The first names were used for those in his own age group: if you were twenty, for example, you called someone forty Mr., Mrs. or Miss, unless you knew them very well and were asked you to use their first name. It was then. Now kids are learning to call their parents’ friends by first name – which is much more natural and warmer too. The result is that the relationships between age groups are much easier. A positive development.

Of course, there was always the term sir and, although it sounds even more formal, madam. Sir remains a practical means of indicating respect – not obsequiously. If you travel to the American Midwest, where good manners are particularly respected, you will, if you are a man, be considered a gentleman in most regular dating. This, of course, would not surprise the French, who are lucky to have Monsieur and Madame as their regular and convenient address. Monsieur needs a return to the English-speaking world. I have noticed, when with friends in the United States, that they will use sir to address someone lower in the pecking order than themselves. It is nothing more than a desire to indicate respect for the other and, one would imagine, it is welcomed by those who otherwise might feel undervalued or taken for granted. And lest matters be overlooked as unimportant, when you hear, as you can in Africa, someone address a stranger like my brother, you realize how these seemingly small things can be powerful. How important it is to be called a brother or sister in a world where anonymity is the norm and where so many people feel unrecognized, alone or marginalized.

The transition to informality has its frustrating side. Nowadays, if you ask someone for their name, you are usually only given the first name. People say that I am John or that I am Sue, and do not explain who they are John or Sue. There are quite a few Johns and Sues out there and the point is, the last name narrows it down. The last name also does a lot of work in locating people, especially in small towns or the countryside, where your last name puts you. If you live in Ambridge, for example, and your last name is Archer, it immediately ties you to a past. The same is true in rural Scotland. In the Borders, if you have one of the many Borders surnames, your family’s distinguished history as successful cattle thieves will be explained. Likewise, in rural Scotland you might – usefully – be known as your farm. It’s a great tradition, binding people to the land, and it’s the opposite of the frightening anonymity of modern city life. You might want to rise above it all, of course, and just be John or Sue to simplify. In fact, Simpliciter is a pretty cool last name, and could be adopted by people who are fed up with the last names we tend to use.

Action names are getting somewhat tedious and overused. In Botswana, people are making up names all the time, so first names are often unique. Often they are not particularly well chosen. I met someone who rejoiced under a very beautiful name of Setswana with a melodious sound. When I asked him what his name meant, he told me, with a little embarrassment, that it could be translated as Look out, the police arrived.

It is interesting to observe how first names are used in politics. When a politician makes himself known primarily by his first name, it is a sign that he is registering with the public – in one way or another. We all remember who Maggie was. Now there is someone called Boris. And a lot of people talk about Nicola with approval. Boris, however, is Boris only in England. In Scotland he is ostensibly Boris Johnson, which is quite different, and that fact tells us something. And there was Tam, who was loved by many, and who could scare Maggie with her questions about Argentine ships. He also had a West Lothian question, which is quite another matter. Gordon Brown is an interesting case. He remained Gordon Brown – a testament to the respect he was and still is widely shared. He’s sometimes referred to as Broon, of course, which is a friendly form of Brown. Mr. Gove, who appears to be a very courteous man, is generally referred to as Mr. Gove. Interestingly, none of these politicians was ever called an uncle or aunt. This honor was reserved for Stalin, widely referred to as Uncle Joe. Not a good precedent.


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