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I always heard people use Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms before people's names and that is how, I thought, it was done until I watched one of those Harry Potter films in which Malfoy (Sr) addresses Albus Dumbledore as just Dumbledore. I noticed later that even Rubeus Hagrid was addressed as only Hagrid. (I have actually read all the seven Harry Potter books but it never occured to me while reading.)

Is this way of addressing people common and considered polite?

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    This may be the custom in British public schools ... Both the staff and the other pupils address the pupils by their surname. So maybe Malfoy Sr using "Dumbledore" as his form of address means that they were in school together.
    – GEdgar
    Dec 20, 2012 at 16:42
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    GEdgar is right. It is also the custom in American private secondary schools (boarding schools, prep schools, etc.), which probably take their cue from the British system.
    – Robusto
    Dec 20, 2012 at 16:47
  • I thought the British custom was to address students as "Mr/Miss LastName", not just LastName? Dec 20, 2012 at 16:48
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    It's actually disrespectful for Malfoy (Snr) to have addressed Albus Dumbledore as simply Dumbledore. He should have used his correct title, Headmaster. But doing so, I suspect was intentional by Malfoy Snr. You also missed out the title Master for the male equivalent of Miss. Dec 20, 2012 at 16:52
  • @spiceyokooko: It does seem disrespectful when heard from Malfoy thanks to his characterisation which is essentially evil. However, students and staff of Hogwarts addressing Hagrid as Hagrid doesn't seem disrespectful at all. So probably, I feel, it's just a way of addressing people without sounding too formal while at the same time not crossing any lines.
    – user32480
    Dec 20, 2012 at 16:56

8 Answers 8

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A hundred years ago, even in the US, men used last-name-only in addressing:

  • Those of either sex who were distinctly inferior, socially or professionally
  • Male equals with whom one was on familiar (but not necessarily intimate) terms
  • Boys and young men to whom one stood in a professionally superior but socially equal relationship

They added the title in addressing:

  • Social and professional superiors
  • Social or professional inferiors of either sex entitled, by virtue of age or status, to a distinct mark of respect
  • Male equals with whom one was not on familiar terms
  • All women who were not distinctly inferior

One addressed by the first-name-only

  • those of either sex with whom one was on affectionately intimate terms.
  • children
  • contemptibly remote inferiors

Women followed the same rules, with the sexes reversed, except that they addressed women equals by last-name-only only in (then rare) professional or school contexts, and the first-name "intimacy/familiarity" line seems to have been drawn a bit less stringently.

In the US, over the course of the last century, almost all uses have been swallowed up by first-name-only, except where tradition or professional discipline enforces use of titles to eminent superiors. I believe the same is coming-to-be in Great Britain, too; but you must consult a native speaker on that.

The use at Hogwarts in the Potter books reflects very traditional public-school practice, which spiceyokooko addresses in more detail in the Comments.

EDIT:
I am moved to add, in light of the discussion in the comments, that it would be gravely discourteous (not to mention deleterious to discipline) to omit a deserved title when addressing anyone in the presence of his or her subordinates.

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  • "contemptibly remote inferiors"? Really, -that- extreme?
    – Mitch
    Dec 20, 2012 at 18:10
  • @Mitch Well, perhaps that’s a little strong; but try this on, from the Milwaukee Sentinel “Advice on Social Customs” column, 1910: “Women servants are generally addressed by their first names, as Mary or Anne. It is the accepted form to speak to men servants not as Henry or John. His surname, Hawkins, Johnson, is used. Personally, I do not like this, but social rules are evolutions of years of custom, and it is so.” Women — and of course servants of colour — were addressed by first name. Dec 20, 2012 at 19:21
  • @StoneyB Indeed. In a formal setting, try referring to a Knight of the Order of the Garter as Dave and see what kind of reaction you get. Dec 20, 2012 at 23:27
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    My impression when I moved from the East Coast of the US to the Left is that Californians are on a first-name basis even in situations where East Coasters retain use of title and surname. The young (teens and twenties) address parents of friends and friends of parents by first name. I sensed a losing battle and surrendered. Dec 22, 2012 at 19:02
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This is common in high-end Private schools in the USA (oddly the equivalent in the UK are often referred to there as "public schools"). When I switched from a public school to a private one, this was one of the first things I noticed. My guess is that addressing by family name only is a subtle way of reminding the (typically upper-class) students that they are representing their family there. That's just my theory though; all one can say for sure is that it's a cultural thing. I've never observed it being the common form of address anywhere else in the USA.

Presumably (based on the evidence from the books) UK "public schools" share this cultural feature. Hogwarts is meant to be special public school for magic users, so they'd need to address each other that way for verisimilitude.

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  • If our UK-based readers could correct or corroborate me on that last paragraph, I'd appreciate it.
    – T.E.D.
    May 3, 2013 at 18:01
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    For late readers, as a British person who went to a boarding school I can confirm we addressed each other by surname for no reason other than that was the culture. We also used first names but there was no enforced rule - I don't recall anyone complaining about how they were addressed by equals or inferiors. Teachers were always 'Sir' to their face, or 'Mr. Smith' in reference.
    – Robin
    May 16, 2018 at 8:35
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In Canada, it has been my experience that students referring to their professors by last name only is rude, verging on offensive when they are around. This may be less of a problem when students are in a group of their peers and all are using the same term and from context, it would be easy to discern if the intention was derogatory or not.

Note, you will notice that even Harry says "Professor Dumbledore" or "Headmaster" when speaking to him directly.

However, you should not really take social cues from works of fiction anyway, whether they are in a fantasy world or not.

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Re forms of address at single sex fee paying schools - aka preparatory (3-13 yrs) and public schools (13-18) in Britain. Use of surnames only was common to both. Brothers were suffixed major or minor by age or simply named I, II, III and so on. Interestingly, this was bidirectional irrespective of seniority so no boy was given a title. All masters were called 'Sir' and female staff/ master's spouses were known either by position/ role, 'nurse', 'matron' or title and surname. Gardeners and groundsmen were known by their first names. In the cadet force all were referred to by rank or sir.

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In school, you refer to your peers by their surnames. You address masters, heads, and such with honorifics. But when they aren't standing right there, you tend to use just the last name for them as well. They properly address you by your last name. Sometimes they might say Miss or Mister or use initials like Weasley,F.

Harry addressing Snape as Snape to Snape's face implies that either Harry thinks he is Snape's peer at Potions or that being a master doesn't entitle Snape to any respect from a student. Both those things are untrue. Harry knows and is just being cheeky. Pretty sure he addressed all the rest of his more awful masters correctly including the likes of Quirrel, Lockhart, and even Umbridge. Remus and Hagrid are exceptions in private because they introduced themselves to Harry as family friends.

There is the consensus that students owe respect to the position of a master or a head since they have more knowledge and experience and are there in charge for the benefit of students. Think of it like the US President. Americans are expected to observe the office with respect, even if they personally don't respect the bloke currently holding it.

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It is (depending on the cultural context) a mark of familiarity or disrespect or maybe neither. I think that when Hagrid (or any member of Dumbledore's army) refers to Dumbledore by his last name, he is still holding him in regard whereas Malfoy's use would be to denigrate. Malfoy (I would guess) would use it to point out that he is removing the title "Professor" so the use would be intentionally disrespectful.

I went to a small school with 5 kids in my class named "David." We learned early on to use only last names. It was simply a convention for convenience, not one meant to reflect anything in particular. Often I would think that meaning is imbued by the speaker or heard by the listener but that meaning is not always intentional or perceived correctly.

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    To refer to Dumbledore by his last name implies no disrespect; to address him without the title would be disrespectful. Dec 20, 2012 at 17:25
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The Mr/Mrs/Dr/etc thing is called an honorific and is a sign of respect. Usually, at least in the US (but I think it's widespread in English-speaking parts of Earth), people are addressed by first name or by honorific + last name. Use of just the last name is not generally considered polite, except that is common in the military when a superior is addressing an inferior. Perhaps it arises in other superior-inferior contexts.

Since Harry Potter is not set on Earth as we currently know it, we can't necessarily extend any of this to that world.

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    You may be right in saying, "Since Harry Potter is not set on Earth as we currently know it, we can't necessarily extend any of this to that world", but I don't think JK Rowling would ignore norms of speaking and addressing just because the novels are set in a fantasy world.
    – user32480
    Dec 20, 2012 at 16:49
  • Some authors would, some wouldn't. I've no idea about JK Rowling in particular. (I've definitely read fantasy works where the authors deliberately altered patterns of speech as part of world-building. Not saying that's true here.) Dec 20, 2012 at 16:50
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For Brits you'll find use of the surname only is considered very rude. My American colleagues do it in the 3rd person sense, I'm busy retraining them ;)

Our newscasters seemed to have picked up this habit somewhere but that is the only place it is used other than at school when you are in trouble.

Maybe JK Rowling wanted to make her novels more accessible to my colleagues!

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    One stylebook I remember (but can't trace) laid down that an arrested man is still called Mr Smith until conviction, when he becomes Smith. He becomes Mr Smith again only on rehabilitation (not easily defined), not on release. May 3, 2013 at 20:54

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