In Dorothy Gladys “Dodie” Smith’s 1956 children’s novel, The Hundred and One Dalmatians, the author writes:

But though you can call a cook ‘Cook’, the one thing you cannot call a butler is ‘Butler’

Why is this?

The surrounding context follows:

      Before their marriages, Mr Dearly and Pongo had lived in a bachelor flat, where they were looked after by Mr Dearly’s old nurse, Nanny Butler. Mrs Dearly and Missis had also lived in a bachelor flat (there were no such things as spinster flats), where they were looked after by Mrs Dearly’s old nurse, Nanny Cook. The dogs and their pets met at the same time and shared a wonderfully happy double engagement, but they were all a little worried about what was to happen to Nanny Cook and Nanny Butler. It would be all right when the Dearlies started a family, particular if it could be twins, one twin for each Nanny, but until then, but were the Nannies going to do? For though they could cook breakfast and provide meals on trays (meals called ‘a nice egg by the fire’) neither of them was capable of running a smart little house in Regent’s Park, where the Dearlies hoped to invite their friends to dinner.

      And then something happened: Nanny Cook and Nanny Butler met and, after a few minutes of deep suspicion, took a great liking to each other. And they had a good laugh about their names.

      ‘What a pity we’re not a real cook and butler,’ said Nanny Cook.

      ‘Yes, that’s what’s needed now,’ said Nanny Butler.

      And then they both together had the Great Idea: Nanny Cook would train to be a real cook and Nanny Butler would train to be a real butler. They would start the very next day and be fully trained by the wedding.

      ‘But you’ll have to be a parlourmaid, really,’ said Nanny Cook.

      ‘Certainly not,’ said Nanny Butler. ‘I haven’t the figure for it. I shall be a real butler – and I shall valet Mr Dearly, which will need no training as I’ve done it since the day he was born.’

      And so when the Dearlies and the Pongos got back from their joint honeymoon, there were Nanny Cook and Nanny Butler, fully trained, ready to welcome them into the little house facing Regent’s Park.

      It came as something of a shock that Nanny Butler was wearing trousers.

      ‘Wouldn't a black dress with a nice frilly apron be better?’ suggested Mrs Dearly – rather nervously, because Nanny Butler had never been her Nanny.

      ‘You can’t be a butler without trousers,’ said Nanny Butler firmly. ‘But I’ll get a frilly apron tomorrow. It will add a note of originality.’ It did.

      The Nannies said they no longer expected to be called Nanny, and were not prepared to be called by their surnames, in the correct way. But though you can call a cook ‘Cook’, the one thing you cannot call a butler is ‘Butler’, so in the end both Nannies were just called ‘Nanny, darling’, as they always had been.

  • 7
    The Hundred and One Dalmatians was published over 60 years ago and this relates to conventions going back to Victorian times. All I know is that in a large, wealthy household the butler was a respected senior servant and was traditionally addressed by his surname. Oct 12, 2020 at 10:06
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    No, it's an interesting question. Housekeeper, butler, maid, valet, chauffeur, and other household servant job names are not used as name referents, whereas Cook is. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the cook is generally not seen by the family at work, whereas the other servants are. But that's just supposition. Oct 12, 2020 at 16:09
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    @JohnLawler It’s interesting which job titles can or cannot be used as a person’s actual name, whether vocatively in direct address or indirectly by name reference. One can say I’ve got news for you, Professor, but you wouldn’t normally say This morning, Professor gave me the news. Yet children can say But yesterday Teacher said it was ok! as if it were an actual name. Mary Poppins can be addressed only as Mrs Poppins never as Nurse or Nanny, because she was the children’s governess not a household servant as a hypothetical Nurse Poppins or Nanny Poppins would have been.
    – tchrist
    Oct 12, 2020 at 17:59
  • 2
    There's a lot going on in the shrubbery with names and vocatives and titles. Oct 12, 2020 at 18:24

2 Answers 2


From my limited experience of households in which there are or were servants, I suspect that Cook, Nanny, Daddy and Mummy comprise a group of people who have direct physical, dietary, behavioural and emotional effect on the children as they grow from babyhood onwards. As such, they are different from those who deal with more structural and service roles such as the butler, the gardener, the chauffeur and the valet. Only the members of the first group lose their personal names in their dealings with the children. Those in the second group have less intimate roles for the children and are referred to more distantly by their personal names.

  • It is interesting that the same intimate/non-intimate distinctions arose in sickness. Nurse, doctor, matron were all terms of address in medicine whereas porter, orderly, cleaner and other functions were not so used.
    – Anton
    Dec 29, 2020 at 8:00

Realize that cultural 'class based distinctions' were very much a part of society then. At the 'top' of the class pyramid were the royalty, then nobility (granted by royalty and heirs of grants), then the lower class.

But the lower class were also split into levels; it was more prestigious to be a valet or butler than a cook, maid, or stable-boy and the upper class tended to address the butler or valet by name; while addressing a stable-boy as 'boy' or 'stable-boy'; implying that people at that level were not important enough to remember the names of.

You can see this cultural trend even today; saying 'Boy, get me a drink'. instead 'Waiter, get me a drink', implies that the person speaking is upper class, and that the waiter is lower class and not worth addressing even by their profession. But if you use the waiters name, you are being as polite as possible; you are saying to that waiter that they are close to or at your social level.

  • Wasn't it the case that an employer would have addressed a butler by surname rather than first name? And much would depend on society - while 'Boy' might have the connotations you describe, 'Garcon' in French would be totally different - I think there's more going on than is implied here. And welcome, Mark - good to have you here. Jun 24, 2021 at 21:15

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