I would like to hear from the forum regarding the use of 'sir' in American literature, such as 'The Manhattan Transfer' by Dos Passos published in 1923. In the Italian translation it is given in the extremely formal 'voi' form, and I would argue that there are numerous examples of 'sir' in that period of American literature where it could be read as being an informal 'tu', simply replacing a name or title where that information is unknown.

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    Things work best here as questions (discussions don't work well here), that is, it is best if you ask a well-formed question. To the end, what is your question about? Is it about whether 'sir', in English', can be translated to either 'voi' or 'tu' in Italian? (be forewarned that such a question is off topic; you may want to ask on Linguistics.stackexchange.com). Or are you asking can 'sir' be used informally? (but I would argue that 'replacing a name or title where ... unknown' has nothing to do with informality). – Mitch Jan 17 '12 at 21:22
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    Context is everything. I would guess that in the majority of modern instances of You, sir, are a the expression that follows is in fact highly insulting. Anyway, this isn't so much a question as an invitation to start an extended discussion. Voting to close as "not constructive". – FumbleFingers Jan 17 '12 at 23:10
  • I think that it's a little borderline as written but could be turned into a constructive question along the lines of how 'sir' can be used both formally or informally. – Lynn Jan 18 '12 at 0:19
  • The import of the question is more about the literary usage of 'sir' and so it seems appropriate to raise the question on writersSE. – Kris Jan 18 '12 at 6:32

Note this entry from Vogue's Book of Etiquette, 1925 (emphasis mine):

A dinner-jacket used to be the sign of extreme informality in the evening. A man might put it on for dinner at home and change it for a dress-coat if he went to the opera or a dance afterward. Now it has become so usual an evening garment that, except on most ceremonious occasions, most young men wear it habitually.

Also note these definitions of sir from Merriam-Webster:

sir, noun

: 1 a : a man of rank or position; b : a man entitled to be addressed as sir

: 4 -- used as a usually respectful form of address

I would argue that sir could not currently be renderered as tu, and certainly not in an era that considered a dinner-jacket the height of informality.


It depends on the context. For instance, in a formal letter:

Dear Sir or Madam: I am writing to complain about your restaurant service...

Extremely formal.

As FumbleFingers pointed out:

You, sir, are a bounder and a cad!

The 'sir' is an ironic use of the formal in a derogatory fashion.

Then there's also:

You, sir, are a gentleman and a scholar.

The 'sir' in this expression is a also somewhat ironic, but more of an informal, joking fashion.

I have no idea how you translate any of that into Italian, and that would be off-topic for EL&U anyway, but I think it illustrates that 'sir' can run the gamut of formality.

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    "run the gamut of formality"? The literal use of 'sir' is always formal; it sits at only one place on the scale of formality and that is at the high end. Irony doesn't change this place. 'Yes, my liege' is extremely formal, but can be used comedically with your cat. That doesn't make it informal. – Mitch Jan 18 '12 at 14:11
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    I think we simply disagree on whether irony affects formality. I don't consider it at all formal when I'm addressing my cat, regardless of what word I use :) – Lynn Jan 19 '12 at 1:50

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