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I'm a student learning English and recently came across the United Kingdom's declaration of war on Japan, which ends with:

I have the honour to be, with high consideration,

Sir,

Your obedient servant,

Winston S. Churchill

I'm impressed by the polite style of that declaration and want to occasionally use this closing in my emails, but I'm female. My gut tells me that because of my gender, this closing might look somewhat awkward in my letters --- similarly to how mistress would be more appropriate than master if used to refer to a woman.

My question: How should I adapt the above letter closing in view of being female?


UPDATE: To clarify, I intend to use this closing in emails of the following kind:

Dear Mr. Smith,

Just humbly letting you know that I haven't yet received the advance payment for my translation services requested by you. I understand that you are extremely busy as a business owner navigating through the storm of the current pandemic and might have overlooked the matter --- we are all humans and accidentally forget about one thing or another. I just humbly beg your understanding that since we are located in different jurisdictions, and I am an undergraduate student who has to pay her rent and bills, I cannot hit the ground running to do the job you kindly chose me to do unless I receive the advance payment. Given the deadline by which you need my translations, I beg your urgent attention to the matter.

I have the honor to be, with high consideration,

Sir,

Your obedient servant,

Mitsuko XXXXXXXX

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The only word you would need to change is servant, and that doesn't really have a feminised version (unless you count servant-girl which is not in the same class, or the really archaic handmaid, which Margaret Atwood has rather hijacked). It's perfectly OK for a servant to be female.

Indeed, in this case, the formula is fixed and the word servant should not be altered*.


The real issue is whether you should be using this form of valediction in a letter at all. Churchill was writing the most formal of letters to the Emperor of Japan, descendent of gods and the leader of probably the most formalised society in the world. Churchill was not averse to grandiloquence and this form of address is entirely appropriate in those circumstances.

British society has changed, and while truly formal letters might be signed off in a similar way, it certainly wouldn't do where the rank of writer and recipient is more equal. America is even more egalitarian. Even as a shopkeeper you are generally at the same level in the order of precedence as your customer, and wouldn't dream of signing off a letter in this manner.

Don't do it. "Yours faithfully" or "Yours sincerely" will do for letters, and "Best regards" or "Kind regards" for emails.


*Unless you're writing formally to the Sovereign and you're British, in which case the most formal words to use are "Your Majesty's loyal subject", but even the Royal Family website says "I have the honour to be, Madam, Your Majesty's humble and obedient servant". (Note: that's still servant, regardless of sex.)

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    Thanks a lot for such a detailed answer. I just added an update to my question in order to explain the nature of emails in which I am considering using such a style and closing as a means of truly catching attention of someone possibly overburdened with responsibilities and things to do.
    – Mitsuko
    Dec 20 '20 at 9:45
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    Thanks for letting me know of the edit. Fortunately my answer doesn't need altering. Don't do it, especially in emails. Your sample email is extremely formal and does indicate you come from a different culture, which may or may not be appropriate. I'd never dream of using that sort of language to someone whose first language is English. When writing to someone of a different culture, it's actually more polite (I'd hold) to adopt the customs of that culture. Churchill did that in his letter.
    – Andrew Leach
    Dec 20 '20 at 9:50
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    My last comment may raise questions about how to word your email. Those aren't on-topic on ELU, as it's writing advice about style, but could be better addressed on Interpersonal Skills.
    – Andrew Leach
    Dec 20 '20 at 9:57
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    Your English is full and very courteously put together. Why make such a long email to someone you believe to be extremely busy? “I am eager to start work in your translation and before I start work I would be grateful to receive the advance payment that we agreed”. Yours Sincerely, Mitsuko
    – Anton
    Dec 20 '20 at 10:32
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    @DennisR.Hidalgo I'd vote for the influence of Dr. Seuss before any influence from the Spartans. “So the writer who breeds more words than he needs, is making a chore for the reader who reads.” Dec 22 '20 at 0:23
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The answers and the comments posted so far on this page focus on the literal meaning of the phrase your obedient servant, and conclude that it should not be used because it is highly unlikely that the writer is anything like an actual servant of the recipient of the communication (with the exception of a subject addressing the monarch). That is, however, a misunderstanding of how the phrase functioned at the times and in the social settings in which it was used. Nobody has ever thought that Churchill actually regarded himself as a servant of the Emperor of Japan; on the contrary it was understood by everybody concerned that he was writing to him from a position of equality, as he was acting on behalf of his own sovereign, who was, in the framework of international relations, an equal of the Japanese sovereign. Nor has anybody ever thought that Churchill regarded himself as obedient to the Japanese Emperor; after all he was writing to declare a war. The phrase your obedient servant and its variations, such as your humble servant, used in formal correspondence do not imply that one regards oneself as an actual servant of the person one is writing to any more than sincerely at the end of a typical present-day business letter implies that there was anything specially sincere about its contents. Any inequality that your obedient servant may imply is merely pretended inequality that is embodied in many other manifestations of politeness. The use of the phrase is thus quite compatible with the people involved regarding themselves as actually equal. George Washington certainly did not think that using that phrase at the end of his letters implied that he was not an equal of his correspondents, nor that it implied support for a hierarchical organisation of the society.

The reason why one, generally, shouldn't use your obedient servant and similar phrases in run-of-the-mill present-day correspondence is not that there is anything inherently wrong with how they were used in the past, but simply that they have gone out of fashion. Using such a phrase in a present-day business letter would be confusing to the recipient in much the same way in which it would be confusing if one showed up for a business meeting dressed in an outfit that was standardly worn for such occasions hundred years ago. Having said that, I wouldn't entirely rule out the possibility that using them might be apt in some rare contexts. I can imagine, for example, that one may choose to use your obedient servant at the end of a letter to a history buff, who is familiar with how the phrase was used in the past, and who will recognise its use as a deliberate creative anachronism. One may, perhaps, also choose to use it when writing in English to a person from a culture in which it is customary to use similar phrases in another language.

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  • I think it would work in the context of a public servant/government bureaucrat writing a letter in a formal context, to either higher-ranking public servants/government bureaucrats or to the public in general.
    – nick012000
    Dec 21 '20 at 11:19
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I will disagree with those that say it should never be used, but it should not be used in this scenario or any similar set of circumstances. You are neither their servant or at their service, you are a contractor that is worthy of her hire.

First, this is an archaic phrase, to most people it is going to be annoying nonsense. So, in most cases, unless you want to make them angry, it should be avoided for that reason alone.

Secondly, even if you believe it would be understood and accepted, you wouldn’t use it unless you are indicating that the next step is up to them AND you are hoping they can come up with an new course of action.

In Churchill’s case, he’s saying they are now at war, but peace talks in the future aren’t totally ruled out.

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    I would agree with this, and just supplement to say on the rare occasions this wonderful old phrase is used today, it's in public life / public service. Eg from 2002, this Australian naval officer. Not in a commercial context, as in the question. In the US I think the only place you'd find it is in the song from Hamilton.
    – Adam Burke
    Dec 20 '20 at 23:35
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    I could see it used by creative collaborators (writers, songwriters, mathematician) in some weird circumstances. But as a general rule of thumb, if you have to ask if it is appropriate, it’s not.
    – jmoreno
    Dec 21 '20 at 3:05
  • I guess you could always volunteer to be someone's servant. There is no law against that. In that case, use this form of writing. :) Dec 21 '20 at 14:00
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    “Annoying nonsense” or “makes people angry” is an overstatement: anyone who would get angry or annoyed at this must have very little patience or empathy for cultural differences. But agreed, in 2020 there are very few native-speakers who would use that phrase, and very few contexts where they would use it; so using it in most contexts does show unfamiliarity with the culture/customs of modern anglophone letter-writing.
    – PLL
    Dec 21 '20 at 16:30
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    @AdamBurke - Surprising no one's mentioned Hamilton. If the OP had seen it (and it had permeated our culture as much as I thought it did) then they'd know it can never be used again without a supposition of sarcasm.
    – Mazura
    Dec 22 '20 at 5:25
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To be frank, the whole letter

Dear Mr. Smith,

Just [...]the matter.

needs rewriting as it is digressive and too subservient. The level of subservience that the recipient expects in English-speaking countries is far, far less that you might feel comfortable with in Japan.

Business letters are usually of the form

Dear Sir/Madam/Messrs/BBC, etc,

[...]

Yours faithfully,

[your signature/name]

or where the name is given, or a known person is addressed:

Dear Mr Smith,

[...]

Yours sincerely,

[your signature/name]

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  • @jsw29 Yes you're right - blame cut and paste. I have edited
    – Greybeard
    Dec 21 '20 at 22:25
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There a few answers suggesting you don't do it because it's not necessary as time have changed.

I would want to add a stronger tone here. Writing such a letter to your tenant/professor/anyone else except the Queen of England could be interpreted either as an insult or in a sexual way - communicating that you're willing to offer them more than your letter.

"Humbly beg" runs a similar risk. "Master" is now associated with slave ownership. "Mistress" with the girlfriend of an already married man.

Yes, times have changed that much.

When you want to communicate compassion or care, a great way to do that is to ask about the other party's situation/ family/ health. But be mindful that even this could be misinterpreted. In the UK, it is acceptable to say "I hope my email finds you well" or "How has your family been through this time?".

In (some parts of the) US, even such an intro would raise eyebrows. If they are stressed by the pandemic and/or overworked, why would this lady waste their time with unnecessary words?

And for a bit of background. The Western culture praises both equalitarianism and efficiency. Following them isn't rude - it's the way to be polite! A short, to-the-point email is all you need to do:

Dear Mr Marcos, (note the subtle nod to politeness - using Mr and family name)

I am unable to start working on the translation until I receive the agreed-upon advance payment.

I will need Z days to complete it so in order to have it ready by the Jan 25th deadline I will need payment confirmation by Dec 28th.

Please let me know if anything has changed on your side.

Best Regards,
Name

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    This is still too verbose. Replace "I would kindly want to remind you that I am unable..." with "As previously agreed, I am unable..."
    – alephzero
    Dec 21 '20 at 0:10
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    This answer makes an excellent point - in 99% of readings today it would be seen as some sort of stupid/bizarre perversion. the vast majority of normal English speakers today would never even have seen or heard the phrase.
    – Fattie
    Dec 21 '20 at 17:01
  • @alephzero: Yes, but don't repeat "agreed" (especially as Mr. Marcos may have forgotten anyway). Also s/unless/until/ (exude optimism!) and use the right tense on "If anything has changed...": "Dear Mr Marcos, As we discussed, I cannot start on the translation until I receive the agreed-upon payment. You can send the payment to <xxx@xxx> on Xxxxx. In order to have the translation ready by Jan 25th, I'll need to receive your payment by Dec 28th. Please let me know if anything has changed on your side. Regards, Xxx." Another useful but clichéd opening phrase would be "Per my last email..." :) Dec 22 '20 at 2:11
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While I also would recommend you never use this phrase unless it’s a joke, there is a famous version of it for a woman, from Luke 1:38.

Mary said, "Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word."

You can find women in literature and history who paraphrased this. One example is Alexander Pope’s poem Eloisa to Abelard, whose conceit is that it is a letter from a woman to her lover. Another would be the letters from Mary Love, “Your distressed handmaid,” pleading for a pardon for her husband, a Puritan minister, in 1651. As a translation of ancient letters, this goes far back: one Akkadian queen mother began her letters to the Pharaoh, written in cuneiform 3,500 years ago, “Your handmaid.”

Times change, though, and today someone who called herself “Your handmaid,” would make native speakers think of the brainwashed women in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

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    Three issues: First, that closing signature is a stock phrase--it shouldn't be altered unless the speaker has a good reason and knows what they're doing (at risk of voiding your warranty). Second, Mary's verbal response to an angel in 1 BC is hugely separated, contextually, from diplomatic letter-writing in the 1940s. And third, this is still just down to translation preference; the International Standard Version just has 'the Lord's servant' here--unless it's a deliberate allusion to a particular shared text, there's no reason to favor 'handmaid' over a (gender-neutral) 'servant'.
    – Tiercelet
    Dec 21 '20 at 16:21
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    @Tiercelet Thanks for the reply. First and second, the stock phrase, “Your handmaid,” has historically been used by women in letters, or to translate letters written by women. To go very far back, this example, of an Akkadian Queen Mother writing to a Pharaoh as “Your Handmaid,” is more than 1,300 years older than Mary, the mother of Jesus and is similar in context to Winston Churchill writing to a Japanese emperor.
    – Davislor
    Dec 21 '20 at 17:46
  • @Tiercelet Third, you are absolutely correct that “handmaid” was originally a gender-specific form of “servant,” like “manservant,” (although it’s acquired religious connotations) and may equivalently be translated “servant.” That is why I proposed it as an answer to this question!
    – Davislor
    Dec 21 '20 at 17:52
  • I don't dispute that this has been used in translation, I just think translations--especially academic translations, which are meant to be pedantically literal to the source language--are a poor guide to idiomatic English usage. You're certainly correct that 'handmaid' is a gendered synonym, but it's a stretch to call either Luke 1:38 or the Amarna letter a 'version' of an English closing salutation phrase. I mention this just because I worry that readers could misunderstand these to be variations of a universal usage, rather than superficially similar literary formalisms.
    – Tiercelet
    Dec 21 '20 at 18:28
  • @Tiercelet All right. I gave one example that was originally in English, but another that was an actual letter written by a woman in English were Mary Love’s letters to Parliament pleading for the life of her husband, a Puritan minister, in 1651. She called herself “Your distressed handmaid,” and used similar language in the text. It is to be noted that this is indeed not a common way to sign a letter in English. She was an extremely devout woman from a particular religious tradition, and used Biblical language heavily.
    – Davislor
    Dec 21 '20 at 18:45

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