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In many dystopian stories, people call each other citizen. In other contexts too, I'm thinking Citizen Kane for example. Why? What is implied here?

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Hmm. Why are you asking? What's your security clearance? – Jason Orendorff Jun 14 '11 at 20:20
@JasonOrendorff: The same as you, Citizen. – MPelletier Jun 14 '11 at 21:54
these are not the droids you are looking for. – JoséNunoFerreira Jun 14 '11 at 22:32
The computer is your friend. – MετάEd Aug 6 '12 at 14:35
See also Citizen Smith. – Hugo Aug 6 '12 at 22:56
up vote 17 down vote accepted

It's backlash against titles of nobility particularly, and the idea that some families or occupations deserve special treatment in general, by giving the exact same title to everyone, regardless of gender, birth, education, or position. I believe you'll find a non-English equivalent was frequently used during the French revolution. "Comrade" is also used, but while both express equality, "Citizen" implies allegiance to country, "Comrade" implies allegiance to party.

It displaces:

  • Sir (in reference to knighthood)
  • His Lordship
  • His Honor
  • His Highness
  • Doctor
  • Professor

and so on, all of which recognize inequality of position.

In a society which wishes to express respect for individual accomplishment but not inheritance, it might be combined with an occupation-linked honorific:

  • Citizen Doctor
  • Citizen Professor
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Contrasting your notion that "Citizen" implies equal position, there are some cases where a "citizen" is a superior position to that of the masses. Ancient Rome, for instance, held Roman citizens, wherever they lived, above members of occupied nations. Starship Troopers went one further by distinguishing "citizen" from "civilian" among the governed people, holding "citizen" as an attainable status granting easier access to what we would call basic rights (like having children). – KeithS Jun 14 '11 at 17:57
@KeithS: You're not talking about English usage anymore, nor usage as a title. Capitalization indicates usage as a title, not the status. – Ben Voigt Jun 14 '11 at 18:26
Um, yes I am? To refer to someone as a "citizen" or to simply call them "Citizen", whether capitalized, used as an honorific, both, or neither, implies that the person has a certain standing in the society that the next person walking down the street may not have. It's roughly synonymous with "comrade" without the extreme-leftist connotation. Only those who are "in", whether in history or in fiction, have the status and get the title. – KeithS Jun 14 '11 at 18:52
@Keith: I meant the "civis" usage in Rome you referred to and Robusto gave an example of, isn't English. I agree with what you said about describing someone as a "citizen". It's the form of address (which might be said to replace an honorific, rather than be an honorific, in the dystopian literature which was the subject of this question) which would generally be capitalized. – Ben Voigt Jun 14 '11 at 21:23

"Citizen" has a long history of being a proud title. Cicero gave voice to this sentiment when he declaimed "Civis Romanus sum" ("I am a citizen of Rome") in his Actiones in Verrem. It is at once patriotic and exclusive; a citizen enjoyed certain rights and protections and was the equal of any other citizen.

We must remember that much of English has been influenced by the classical education given to its ruling class. From the same Wikipedia article:

"The locution was quoted by Lord Palmerston when called to explain his decision to blockade Greece. In his speech in the Houses of Parliament on June 25, 1850 he claimed that every British subject in the world should be protected by the British Empire like a Roman citizen in the Roman Empire."

Spoken normally as a respectful way to address someone, it undergoes a transformation: the dystopian novel adds an ironic element to the title, since the "rights and protections" afforded a citizen are somewhat turned upside down. They become vulnerabilities and liabilities.

Now, there is another meaning to "Citizen" which implies that someone who is grand and rich and lordly may be styled "Citizen" to denote that he is a man of the people. This is, I believe, what Orson Welles meant by calling Charles Foster Kane (the thinly veiled image of William Randolph Hearst, who built a publishing empire and tried to use it to bend the country to his will) "Citizen Kane". This man fancied himself a populist, yet lived in San Simeon, one of the most expensive and lavish estates since Louis XIV's Versailles and the various imperial palaces of the Roman emperors. So the title is used ironically.

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It specifically harks back to the French Revolution.

"Comrade" similarly recalls the Soviet era.

In both cases, the society was supposedly much more equitable and fair, but with hindsight is seen as less than perfect.

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What that implies to me is that in the fictional world in question, the most important thing to know about someone you otherwise don't know is that they are subject to the same government as you. It implies a preoccupation with the state which we in this reality don't quite have.

For example, when I meet some random person on the street, and wish to address them with a modicum of respect, I will call them "Sir" or "Maam". This is saying that, even though I don't know you, I'm respecting you based on a certain level of maturity I perceive. If you in fact don't act with that level of maturity, you wouldn't be deserving of my respect.

If I were instead to call you "Citizen", what I would be saying is that the respect I give you is only a function of your connection with (and presumably subservience to) the State. The implication here is that those who are citizens of other states, as well as those who may have issues with subjecting themselves to the State's authority, are not in fact worthy of my respect.

(note: By "The State" above, I am of course referring to a supreme governmental authority, not to a particular subunit of government used in the USA)

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Good point. It also has a meaning which only military officers might give to non-military persons. It could be a title of respect or it could be a way of clearly distinguishing themselves from the civilians they talk to. – Neil Jun 14 '11 at 15:07

Regarding Citizen Kane, the title of "Citizen" is used to note that Kane holds no official position of power. He's not an elected politician, yet he wields considerable power as a newspaper magnate.

I think "Citizen" also points to Kane's humble roots and meteoric rise.

Orson Welles's working title for the film was John Citizen USA.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizen_Kane#Ideas_and_collaboration

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Addressing someone as "Citizen" (as opposed to first name, last name, or other title) can imply an emphasis on their service to/position in a possibly-totalitarian state.

This is the use of "Citizen" in the video game Half-Life 2, for example.

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This is especially the case if it's repeated, and if they have no interest in ever addressing you by name. You are not an individual, just a "Citizen" who is part of the collective. – mskfisher Jun 14 '11 at 18:55
Also, if "Citizens" are addressing each other this way, it can imply that they are brainwashed into thinking they are nothing more than servants of the state. – mskfisher Jun 14 '11 at 18:56

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