Several dictionaries - Merriam-Webster, Collins, Cambridge et al. - say that "to be on first-name terms" is British English. What is it called in American English when two people decide to call each other by their first name? And how would it be phrased if one asks someone else "to be on first-name terms"?

I'm translating a scene from a movie. We're in the mid-1800s. A young man asks a young lady if they can be on first names


3 Answers 3


The NAmE version is:

to be on a first name basis (with...)

NGram chart for American English corpus...

AmE chart

Corresponding NGram chart for British English corpus...

BrE chart

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    Comparing British and American NGram charts, I'm quite surprised to see how strong this usage split is. Well noted! Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 13:04
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    This is what is said in Canadian English as well. Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 15:30
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    In the cited definition I'd quibble about the necessity of a "personal relationship." I've know numerous people professionally who call me by my first name with whom I've never had what I consider to be a "personal" relationship.
    – MaxW
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 23:54
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    See english.meta.stackexchange.com/questions/1171/… for how to embed ngram charts.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 18:03
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    Heh. As an American that phrasing is so foreign to me that I didn't even realize the word "terms" was inside the quote in the question, and assumed the question was asking what the equivalent AmE term was.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jan 4, 2020 at 21:48

While I agree with SilverFace's excellent and accurate answer,

to be on a first name basis (with...) I felt another answer was necessary to answer other parts of the question:

To answer the second part of the question, people don't really ask to be on a first name basis, it mostly happens automatically based on the kinds of interactions. For example. All of my coworkers, bosses and underlings all call me by my first name. Someone might use the phrase "I'm on a first-name basis with Elon Musk", which would mean that he knows who I am, and calls me that. The people Americans interact with that we're not on a first name basis, are people like doctors and professors. Mostly to me it feels like industries that are still based on British ways of thinking. (Academia?)

To answer the third question, it would mostly be something along the lines of "Can I call you [Bob]?" And this question is very frequently used in television / movies to which the responder will comically say "No."

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    Accurate! I should've covered the second part of the question as well.
    – Apollonian
    Commented Jan 2, 2020 at 22:50
  • To be honest I think this is true in Britain too. But the expression is still used metaphorically in Britain for being more personally familiar with someone.
    – Muzer
    Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 10:07
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    I think that this is a MODERN (post 1990s-ish?) style -- it's hard for me to judge the 1980s as I was a child, and adults were often Ms. Bobbi or Mr. Bob. But listen to old time radio drama from the 1940s/1950s (available on archive.org) and EVEN in the 1970s (CBS Radio Mystery Theater), and there's almost always a "Please, call me Bob" moment. The tendency towards last names means that in one 70s episode I recently heard, the cop doesnt know what to call the victim: did she marry Mr. Smith (so "Mrs. Smith") or was it a lie ("Miss Jones"); he can't say "Elaine" because that's too casual. Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 14:15
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    (Since my bit is only clarifying the American-ness with a time element, I didn't feel it merited being a full answer.) I can't access Archive.Org at work, but a great way to see English (mostly U.S.) changing over time is to check out any Old Time Radio they have hosted there -- you can play most from the site! Commented Jan 3, 2020 at 14:19
  • To partially answer about academia, in British computer science, at least, there's a distinction between people (known by given names) and authors (known by surnames). Colleagues, visitors, and people met at conferences are all people, and everyone else whose work you know of is an author. Everyone involved in either side of teaching is also a person, except the authors of referenced textbooks and papers who you never meet. In publishable material (papers), everyone mentioned is an author.
    – mudri
    Commented Jan 5, 2020 at 0:38

While SilverFace and McKay both have excellent answers, I feel part of the story has been left out.

The UK, and by extension most if not all current and former Crown colonies, inherited their use of the first name as a manifestation of close interpersonal ties from French and German, wherein the distinction between tu and vous (French), or du and Sie (German), fills the same societal role as the use of first names. In fact, the French tutoie-moi (verb tutoyer), generally translated as be friendly with me literally translates as something like 'tu' me. German has a similar construct with duze mich (verb duzen), which while sharing its literal meaning with French ('du' me), is translated by Wiktionary as either to address informally using the pronoun du, to thou, or to be on first-name terms.

Why is this relevant? Because the further you go from the source of this usage, the more it has drifted to a form of overformality. In the UK, being on first-name terms has some meaning, as most people over a certain age (somewhere around 35, though I can't find satisfactory evidence it's been studied) tend to refer to others with either given names or surnames depending on status, with given names used for those of equal or lower status, and familiarity, with the notable exception of royalty often being referred to using their proper honorific (eg. "Sir", "Lord", "Queen", and "Prince") and their given name.

In the US and Australia, this is largely no longer the case once one reaches the age of majority. American schoolchildren are expected to refer to teachers by their surnames, and in some areas all adults; Australian and Canadian schoolchildren similarly use the surname for teachers, though this may be starting to change. In adulthood, with the exception of doctors, political figures (with some exceptions), and faculty and staff within higher education (professors, deans, etc.), one generally refers to others by their first name only.

To answer the question of what it is called in American English when two people decide to call each other by their first name, I would say normal. Two people mutually referring to each other by surname would be considered very unusual, as essentially all remaining surname-only relationships are unilateral, i.e. teachers refer to students with their first names, and doctors similarly refer to each other by first name. Perhaps more tellingly would be if you referred to two people as being on a last-name basis, which as mentioned by SilverFace would be far more commonly said in the US than being on last-name terms.

Finally, to ask someone to refer to you by first name in the US, if they aren't already, I'd try "Call me Bob."

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