SUR: (derived from the Old French) sir; a man of authority; a master or lord
As the above etymology explains, the word “sir” comes from a medieval French word. Feudal European societies were extremely hierarchical; titles and rank were crucial aspects of everyday interactions. In England, the tradition lives on with the enduring institution of knighthood. While the title of Knight is not taken as seriously as it was seven centuries ago, it remains a respectful homage to the old tradition. In the ostensibly more casual United States, there are still some hierarchies, such as the military, where addressing those of higher rank as “Sir” is compulsory. I am not, however, really concerned with the use of this word when addressing knights or generals. I want to know why people feel the need to use it when talking to me.
My question is, why in the world is this title still used in everyday, casual discourse? Why is a customer waiting on line to buy a mochachino addressed in the manner appropriate to a medieval lord? I will confess that part of my personal dislike of being addressed as “Sir” is that it makes me feel older than I’d prefer. When you are a teenager, and often through your twenties, you want to appear, if anything, older than you really are. When you get beyond the first few years of your thirties, the opposite preference quickly takes root. I wonder how many men between, approximately, the ages of 35 and 60, like being called “Sir.” The same question could, no doubt, be framed about women regarding “Ma’am.” The age factor however, is largely a matter of personal vanity. If the only objection to the widespread use of “Sir” is a denial complex about reaching your middle years, that would hardly be a very persuasive reason to stop it.
It seems to me that “Sir” is an anomaly in an otherwise informal cultural climate. Looking at it from the other side of the counter, so to speak –that is, from the standpoint of people who feel compelled to say “Sir” (and “Ma’am”)– is it not a little demeaning? Service jobs are among the fastest growing sectors of the economy. Is the continued use of such a formal title a subtle acknowledgment that the days of a hierarchical, feudal society are not completely behind us? Perhaps we can distinguish two types of usage. In one case, when you are trying to get the attention of an adult male whose name you don’t know, there is not really any socially acceptable alternative. For example, “Sir, you forgot your change.” The other type of usage is where it is perfectly obvious who is being addressed, yet the speaker feels it necessary to put in superfluous “Sirs.” For me, the more often this is repeated, the more annoying it is. I may be a touch paranoid on the issue, but this alone is often enough to discourage me from patronizing so-called better restaurants and hotels. Obsequiousness gives me the creeps.
There is yet another angle from which to approach this. “Sir” conveys something other than respect –it also denotes a boundary. Not only a boundary of rank, but of familiarity. The person you are addressing as “Sir” may or may not be of a higher rank than you, but he is almost certainly a stranger, someone outside your social circle or subculture (again, unless you are part of the military or another institution that adopts military-style behavior, e.g. police forces or martial arts schools). I’ve observed that people from other countries (I’m speaking from the perspective of an American) are more likely than natives to call men they don’t know “Sir.” This, in many cases, reflects their roots in a more formal culture (depending on where they hail from, of course, but most places are more formal than America). Yet, it also conveys something related but still distinct -a sense of separateness that many immigrants are not eager to relinquish. A similar tendency can be found among Americans from traditional backgrounds, such as small towns, when addressing strangers. “Strangers” in this context can mean not only those they’ve never seen before, but people whose background differs significantly from their own. As someone who presently lives in an area that is somewhere between suburbia and rural America, I have had the not very reassuring experience of being addressed as “Sir” by people who I see quite regularly. In such cases, I have the distinct feeling that the word, apart from the polite respect it conveys, is a subtle reminder that I am not a local, whether literally, as in someone born in a certain region, or more generally, as an outsider to a specific group or subculture. I suppose I am suggesting that “Sir” can be a subtle form of cliquishness, a way to exclude outsiders.
In an increasingly anonymous world, be called “Sir” can also contribute to a general sense of anomie. In some science fiction dystopias, people don’t have names but numbers. Yet numbers are at least unique; if I were to be addressed by my social security number, for example, that would at least be my own number. “Sir,” on the other hand, is completely generic. I don’t know that I’d really prefer being addressed as a nine digit number, but sometimes I wonder.
If this vestige from feudalism has managed to survive and flourish into the 21st Century, it does not seem likely that it’s going to disappear anytime soon. I cannot claim to be able to offer any helpful alternatives. After all, you have to call someone whose name you don’t know something. So it would be easier to simply pass off “Sir” as nothing more than a word that people have continued to use out of habit for lack of a widely accepted alternative. Yet I cannot quite dismiss the feudal associations, along with the other concerns I’ve addressed here. All things considered, the best strategy for those of us who simply don’t like the word “Sir” (I know I’m not the only one) is to simply develop a tolerance and immunity to this custom, which will most likely be here for a while. It is, in the overall scheme of things, rather trivial. Still, for those who care, I’d really prefer that you didn’t call me “Sir,” at least until the Queen bestows knighthood upon me.