Around the middle of the twentieth century, it was usual for English speakers to refer to people from certain non-English speaking countries with honorifics in their native language, rather than English honorifics.

The most easily found example is that contemporary reports of Adolf Hitler almost always call him "Herr Hitler", and rarely "Mr Hitler" or "Mister Hitler". A more recent example - François Mitterand - shows a much more even mix between "Mr" and "Monsieur".

When did this practice originate?

I believe it's no longer a common practice in English, is that correct? If so, when did it stop?

It was definitely used in the German and French languages. What other languages was it common for? What languages was it rarely or never used for?

Does anyone have any explanation for this practice, which certainly seems odd?

Is there any research into this practice?

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    I'm not sure that I agree that the use of foreign honorifics is so uncommon nowadays. I wouldn't be too surprised to see somebody using M., Mme and Mlle in English to refer to a French person. (Note: I have the impression that, just as "Mr." is more common before a name than "Mister" in English, "M." is more common before a name than "Monsieur" in French.) But it's a bit hard to tell because I think many publications avoid any kind of honorifics, English or foreign, in most circumstances: I feel like the most neutral option for referring to a person is just a bare last name. – herisson Aug 5 '19 at 21:18
  • @sumelic Olympe Maxime in the Harry Potter series is definitely always called Madame, never Mrs – but then again, madame is probably the least foreign one of the bunch, being almost entirely identical with madam. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 5 '19 at 21:21
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    It was/is also fairly common with Spanish and Italian at the least. Señor X would be common enough, and there are hundreds of Don X’s in mafia films. You might even argue that Daniel-san of Karate Kid fame might count, though I don’t think -san is really productive in English outside of niche circles. – Janus Bahs Jacquet Aug 5 '19 at 21:25
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    Could you add sources for your claims? – marcellothearcane Aug 5 '19 at 21:26
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    I reject your premise that clear starting and stopping points can be seen in something so scattershot as honorifics in the entire domain of "foreign language". Doing an Ngram search for Yukio Mishima, for example, elicits no instances of Mr or Mister Mishima, a spare few of Mr. Mishima, and the bulk of the citations for Yukio Mishima and (in correct order) Mishima Yukio. What are we to make of this? I don't know. But I think your question is flawed. At the very least it ought to be refined. – Robusto Aug 5 '19 at 21:27

I have always understood this to be an affectation, and I don't perceive that it has become any less acceptable as such. It raises no eyebrows to refer to, to pick some examples off the top of my head, Frau Merkel, Monsieur Macron, Signor Berlusconi. Neither is this limited to English, to wit, Señor Messi, Mister Trump.

Using the foreign title or honorific is not intended to respect the culture or nationality of that individual, so much as simply to associate the individual with it. This may be done to add color to the writing, or to ascribe a certain cosmopolitanism to the author, but at least as often it emphasizes the alien, othered, exotic nature of the individual in question relative to the primary audience.

With phrases of such low prevalence as Herr Hitler or M. Mitterand, the Ngram is of questionable value, but the same tool will find counter-examples where the "native" title is not used, and some other title has been popularized:

If their use has declined in recent years, I would argue that it follows a general decline in use of courtesy titles, which to modern sensibilities may seem superfluous or overly formal. For example, my edition of the AP Stylebook (2013) is firmly against the use of basic courtesy titles (those that do not indicate a professional or academic rank):

Refer to both men and women by first and last name, without courtesy titles, on first reference: Susan Smith or Robert Smith. Refer to both men and women by last name, without courtesy titles, in subsequent reference. Use the courtesy titles Mr., Miss, Ms. or Mrs. only in direct quotations or after first reference when a woman specifically requests it: for example, where a woman prefers to be known as Mrs. Smith or Ms. Smith.

When it is necessary to distinguish between two people who use the same last name, as in married couples or brothers and sisters, use the first and last name, without courtesy title.

In cases where a person's gender is not clear from the first name or from the story's context, indicate the gender by using he or she in subsequent reference.

  • I agree about it being overly formal and affected. In fact, it comes off as vaguely snarky or haughty. The use of the standard english courtesy titles is plenty polite without seeming effete. – David M Aug 5 '19 at 22:57

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