In the Indian subcontinent (and some other surrounding areas), there's this practice of putting the titles "sir" and "miss" (not ms.—mind you) after the name of school-level teachers. For instance:

  • Alex —> Alex SIR, not Sir Alex
  • Deepika —> Deepika MISS, not Miss Deepika

I do understand the purpose of these titles as a mark of respect towards teachers in general, seeing that knights (who also have the title "sir") were regarded as honourable men back in medieval England. But why "miss"? A lady is not the feminine equivalent of a knight, which the idea probably stemmed from.

Am I right in assuming so (that the concept of addressing teachers as such originated from the once similarly respectable position of a knight)? And is this practice specific to the Subcontinent?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – tchrist Aug 28 '18 at 2:08
  • These are not the "respectful term of address" cases. The terms just mean "teacher" and no more. It's the form prevalent in India and other countries of the CW. – Kris Aug 28 '18 at 8:18
  • @Kris Pardon my ignorance, but I'm not familiar with the abbreviation CW. Care to elaborate? – Soha Farhin Pine Aug 28 '18 at 12:45
  • I'm guessing that CW refers to Commonwealth – Mari-Lou A Aug 28 '18 at 16:47
  • Not a duplicate but see also Usage of and equivalents of Sir – Mitch Aug 28 '18 at 16:59

In British and American Englishes, "sir" and "miss" never go after the name, only before it. I checked the Oxford English Dictionary's pages for "sir", "miss", and "mistress" (because it is the word that "miss" comes from) and it indicates that this has always been true for these words.

It is, however, possible to use "sir" and "miss" on their own, without any name. The OED has the following relevant definitions:

  • Sir:

    • Used as a respectful term of address to a superior or, in later use, an equal[...]; also by schoolchildren in addressing a master

  • Miss:

    • A form of address to a female teacher (corresponding to sir n. 7 [the definition I quoted above]).

Neither of these definitions describe titles. They're used like this: "excuse me, sir" and "no, miss". However, I don't personally use either "sir" or "miss" standalone like this because it sounds old fashioned to me, nor do my peers seem to use it. (I'm American and in my early 20s.)

In my experience, teachers are addressed as one of the following:

  • Mr. LastName (for male teachers regardless of marital status)
  • Miss LastName (if an unmarried female teacher)
  • Mrs. LastName (if a married female teacher)
  • Ms. LastName (if I can't remember if she's married or not)
  • Dr. LastName (if they hold a doctorate, although this is rare before postsecondary education)

(I've never known anyone who goes by "Sir Name", teacher or not, but it might be different in British English.)

It's possible, although I have no evidence one way or the other, that something like the following morphed into what you're seeing now, in India:

Yes, Mr. Brewster, sir
Delphi Complete Works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

"Sir" is not attached to the name here. The name could be removed from the sentence at the expense of making it confusing who was being addressed.

The other (quite likely) possibility is that it originates as confusion between English and the native language of some Indians. (But I don't have any evidence for this either.)

  • Your suggestion that it could have resulted from a misinterpretation is not very likely. The other one is reasonable, though. Anyway, thanks for clearing up how the names and titles are used together in Standard English! – Soha Farhin Pine Aug 28 '18 at 3:28
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    Addressing male teachers as "Sir" in BrE is dependent on the culture of the school they go to; private schools tend to require pupils to use it (assuming things haven't changed in 15 years anyway...). – AndyT Aug 28 '18 at 8:17
  • See comment by AndyT above and mine at OP. You've completely missed the point. – Kris Aug 28 '18 at 8:19
  • Totally separate from the original question is the fact that "sir" and "ma'am" are commonly used in situations where the speaker wishes to express deference. Thus, in response to the question "Johnny, did you bring your homework today?" the student might reply "Yes, ma'am." Or Johnny might raise his hand and, when recognized, say "Ma'am, did you say 'Tuesday'?" – Hot Licks Aug 28 '18 at 11:40
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    @Mari-LouA That part of my answer wasn't very clear and has been edited. What I meant is that I don't personally know anyone who goes by "Sir Name". It's only something I've seen in history books ("Sir Isaac Newton") or heard in period acting (TV, movies, Renaissance fairs). – Laurel Aug 28 '18 at 18:22


"Forms of address: [...]

While addressing to a third person, British/ American/ Australian, any pattern is used. But because of polite and honorific tendency and cultural ‘guru-shishya parampara’, Indian students add the words of respect, honorific words ‘sir / madam’ after the first name or surname; e.g. ‘Goswami Sir’ or ‘Usha Madam’ etc. Deviation from the academic culture may bring the feeling of discomfort for the speaker of that particular country. This sense of discomfort is termed as “pragmatic dissonance1 (a practical cultural discomfort due to loss of harmony in cross cultural interference)." [bolding mine]

forms of address

Miss in English comes from Mistress, which used to be used in front of a woman's name, both married or not. If you have read any Dickens, you would have seen this frequently, for example.

From: The Indianization of English : the English language in India Braj B Kachru Published in 1983 in Delhi by Oxford university press

  • Your answer ignores "sir" which is used to address a male teacher. See (once very famous) Brit film: To Sir, with love – Mari-Lou A Aug 28 '18 at 16:03
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    My answer focuses on usage in Indian English regarding examples where miss and sir come after the name. It includes one with sir. My answer is not a complete disquisition on sir and miss. :). – Lambie Aug 28 '18 at 16:04
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    But the question is not about Indian English, the OP has already explained how "miss" and "sir" is used in their country of origin. It is asking whether native speakers of BrEng and AmEng use these terms at (high) school (not university/college) and if "sir" is derived from the era of "knights" – Mari-Lou A Aug 28 '18 at 16:07
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    It is part of the question: "And is this practice specific to the Subcontinent?" Like I said, I answered that part of the question. – Lambie Aug 28 '18 at 16:21

Regarding the peculiar postposition of the title of honour, as in your example

Alex Sir

instead of "Sir Alex", it might be a step towards understanding the roots of this word order to know that in variuos languages of the Middle East (today, and historically) postposition of titles of honour has been and is quite common. For example, in Turkish it would be quite common so say

Ali Bey

where "Ali" is a proper name, and "Bey" is something like "Sir". You also could say "Bey Ali", but more common, I think, is "Ali Bey" - or "Layla Hanım" for a lady.

So, could it be that the postpositioning of "Sir" on the Indian subcontinent is related to these traditions? Similarly "Khan" seems to be put after the proper name regulary.

  • Although that is certainly an interesting supposition, I'm afraid it is a bit out of context here. The Indian Subcontinent is not part of the Middle East. Arabian language and speech patterns are vastly different from that of the Austroasiatic category. – Soha Farhin Pine Aug 28 '18 at 12:39
  • @SohaFarhinPine However, see also the answer by Lambie above. There's indeed a connection. – Kris Aug 29 '18 at 11:15

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