20 December 2018
What’s in a name?
By Chin Chin
In they come in their twos and threes, this year’s crop of Christmas cards. They look very nice too, once they have been arranged along our mantelpiece, a friendly reminder that the twenty-fifth is only just over a week away. They are not, however, just a reminder. They are also rebuke. It is time that I wrote mine.
Not all Christmas cards require a reply. There are those which I posted to myself as pump-primers to the inward flow. Of course I could reply to those, and if the collection is looking a bit thin, I will certainly do so, but it takes quite a lot of patience to write “we have had a good year and are well liked and respected in the neighbourhood” to someone (i.e. me) who already knows it. Then there are the commercial cards. How would you reply to a card from the local estate agents offering to sell your house for you? Should it be “I’ll keep you in mind” or should you tell them to get lost? If that is the message, is it really appropriate to use a card with the dove of peace on the front? Perhaps, these days, one should reply with an offer to sell their estate agency business for them if it doesn’t happen to be making a profit. Is there a rule that Christmas greetings should not be catty?
Still, even when these been excluded, there is a core of old friends and people with whom you would not wish to lose touch. Easy, you might think; just pull down the address book and start writing. Unfortunately, it isn’t quite as simple as that. First there is the message. When someone sends you a card detailing the achievements of their grandchildren to the third-degree it is really not quite good enough just to reply with a “Merry Christmas” and a signature. On the other hand, if the card you receive simply contains a signature, it is unlikely that the sender is hoping for a lengthy yuletide letter, including a recipe for mince pies, in return. How to sort it out? Why, with a system, of course. Simply jot down the four main achievements of your year and number them in order of importance. Then count the pieces of information on the incoming card and match the number. If the card you receive has three pieces of family information, then include the first three of your achievements, etc. That way nobody will feel that they have been bored by you (except for those unusual human beings who regard what they say as interesting and what they hear as dull) or that their own greetings were inadequate.
So much for the content, but that is not the difficult bit. There is also what to put on the outside of the envelope. Thirty years ago the rules were easy. A woman took her husband’s name on marriage and you only used her name on the envelope if she was divorced or a widow. A man on his own, however, was usually recognised by the appendage “Esquire”. Neither rule holds good now with the introduction of “Ms”, which is followed by the woman’s Christian name rather than that of any husband, and the almost total disappearance of “Esquire” which is now only used by American lawyers. Its disappearance marks the bursting of a bubble.
If you went back to the middle ages a squire was someone on his way to becoming a knight. That is probably why, in the twentieth century, descent from a knight was one of the hallmarks which allowed the expression “Esquire” to be appended. Others qualified too, for example Justices of the Peace and others holding the Queen’s Commission. Also, barristers, although it was unclear whether the appendage was appropriate to the outer bar, or merely to Queen’s Counsel. In the more democratic post-war environment, however, these distinctions began to fade and, before long, almost any envelope addressed to a man included the word “Esquire” after his name. Public bodies such as the Inland Revenue used it universally.
That, of course, could not last. There is no point to all in being addressed with an honorific if everyone else is too. So the bubble burst and we were left with plain Mr, Mrs, Ms and Miss, with Ms making progress at the expense of Mrs and Miss. If that trend continues, we will get to the stage where men are always called Mr and women are always called Ms, at which point neither title will add anything to the Christian name of the person being addressed. Then the stage will be set for a general move towards using names with no title at all.
That will save a little ink, but it will also send out a message of confidence. We will then be a society whose members do not need titles to reinforce their identity, but are happy just to be known by our names. It seems a very sensible arrangement.