first name

first name
   In the English-speaking world at the present time, first names are by far the most commonly used term of address. This was by no means always the case. Until the early part of the twentieth century men who had been friends or colleagues for a life-time habitually used one another’s last names. Women used first names to one another when their relationship had developed to the friendship stage, though a relationship between middle-class women would never have begun with the use of first names. For a man to address a woman, or a woman a man, by first name it was necessary for their relationship to have reached an advanced stage of friendship, bordering on a proposal of marriage.
   In Britain the change from last name to first name usage amongst middle-class men appears to have begun around 1930 or very soon afterwards. C.Northcote Parkinson, in an authoritative article some years ago, argued that Edward VIII had much to do with it. He was a known advocate of informality, and above all, he was thoroughly Americanized. There may well have been pressure on British society to follow the American lead in using first names before Edward VIII came briefly to the throne in 1936, but George V maintained Victorian values and insisted on Victorian standards of etiquette. Support for the dating of the change comes in The Affair, by C.P.Snow.
   It occurred to me, still thinking of Martin’s manners, that while he kept some of the old-style Cambridge, Crawford had, in just one respect, dropped his. Crawford called his contemporaries by their surnames, and that had been common form until the twenties. Even in my time there were not many Fellows who were generally called by their Christian names. But since the young used nothing else, since Martin and Walter Luke and Julian Skeffington had never been known by anything but their Christian names to their own contemporaries, the old men also began to call them so. With the result that Crawford and Winslow, who after fifty years of friendship still used each other’s surnames, seemed oddly familiar when they spoke to the younger Fellows.
   In spite of this example, there were those who did not easily give way to the new usage. There are certainly British people alive in the late 1980s who still feel uneasy about the liberal use of first names. They are members of an older generation, to be sure, and they are probably of middle-class background rather than working-class, but they certainly exist. The Second World War, however, produced a combination of circumstances which made the victory of first name over last name inevitable. There was a mixing of the social classes as never before, more and more situations where women were working alongside men and more encounters between British and American people.
   Men from middle-class backgrounds found themselves working alongside Tom, Dick, and Harry instead of being distanced from them. The working men were the majority, and their vocative usage would have become the norm without the additional pressures brought about by working with women, who would not want to address men by their last names. Middle-class boys, however, had earlier been brought up to believe that the use of their first names, outside the family circle, was almost shameful. Max Beerbohm, who would have been at school in the 1870s, once said that at his school the mere possession of a Christian name was thought to be unmanly. Public school traditions tend to live on, and in Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, we have the following exchange: ‘“I’m Ralph…” “Kids’ names,” said Merridrew. “Why should I be Jack? I’m Merridrew.”’ Brothers in Law, by Henry Cecil, has the central character say: ‘He felt a little like he did in his first days at a public school when he was terrified his mother would call him by his Christian name.’ David Benedictus, in The Fourth of June, a novel about life at Eton, has: ‘“May I sit down, Tom?” Tom? Nobody ever called him that’
   Later on, when these boys were far away from the enclosed environments of their schools, exclusively masculine environments, of course, their attitude towards being addressed by first name might change completely if a young lady was the speaker. ‘I would have leaped into the valley of the shadow of death,’ says the impassioned young lover in Lorna Doone, by R.D.Blackmore, ‘only to hear her call me John.’ This sounds remarkably dated, but even in Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, we have: ‘“Jim,” Christine said. Dixon’s scalp pricked at this, the first use of his Christian name.’ A Kind of Loving, by Stan Barstow, has a similar comment:
   ‘Have you had a nice Christmas, Vic?’ Ingrid says, and I’m so tickled to hear her say my name that I can’t think what to say for a minute. Nor Mr Brown, like Miss Price. Not Victor, even; but Vic, just like my mates.
   Until fairly recently it was by no means automatic for a young man to begin using the first name of a girl or woman. Sometimes the woman concerned would invite the man to use her first name; sometimes he would hesitantly use it and wait to see what reaction he obtained. The Business of Loving, by Godfrey Smith, comments on the process: ‘Could you tell us, Mrs Weston-’ began Benedict. But she gently interrupted him. ‘Please call me Arabella. After all, I’m not very much older than you.’ Benedict began again rather shyly: ‘Could you tell us, Arabella -’ It was delectable, the unwonted, the previously forbidden pleasure of using her Christian name.
   In Kate and Emma, by Monica Dickens, a girl’s similar offer embarrasses the older man to whom she makes it, possibly because she is of a higher social background: ‘“If you care to, Miss Bullock.” I said:
   “Oh, yes, but please call me Emma.” His neck got a bit red, and after that he didn’t call me anything, not even Miss Bullock.’ The tentative essay is reported in Agnes Grey, by Anne Brontë, who writes: Ceremony was quickly dropped between us. He even called me Agnes: the name had been timidly spoken at first, but, finding it gave no offence in any quarter he seemed greatly to prefer that appellation to ‘Miss Grey’; and so did I.
   Nurse is a Neighbour, by Joanna Jones, has:
   ‘I can’t keep calling you Nurse. can I?’ ‘My name’s Jones,’ I said. He waited. I added: ‘Joanna Jones.’
   ‘Well, then…’ He hesitated, and then said tentatively: ‘Miss Jones.’ The name of Joanna seemed to have trembled on his lips, but he was deferential, respectful, slow to advance.
   This hesitancy usually occurred in situations where the man, and possibly the woman, hoped that the relationship might develop meaningfully. If it was clear from the beginning that nothing more than friendship would result, a more matter-of-fact attitude usually prevailed. In Room at the Top, by John Braine, a landlady greets a new tenant: ‘I’ll call you Mr Lampton if you like,’ she said, ‘but I’d rather call you Joe…And my name is Joan,’ she added. ‘That’ll be fine, Joan,’ I said; though oddly enough, I never thought of her as anything else than Mrs Thompson.
   In The Bell, by Iris Murdoch, a woman member of a lay religious community uses first names to male newcomers and remarks in passing: ‘We all use Christian names here, you know.’ The fact that it is a Christian community and that ‘Christian name’ is used instead of the now more frequent ‘first name’, recalls a remark by Charles Lamb, in his essay on Mackery End, In Hertfordshire: ‘In five minutes we were as thoroughly acquainted as if we had been born and bred up together; were familiar, even to the calling each other by our Christian names. So Christians should call one another.’
   Lamb was talking about first name usage between men. When men and women have reached the first name stage, use of the name in an intimate relationship can be made very special by the tone in which it is uttered, and by its repetition. Novelists are firmly in agreement on this point, and most manage to make it economically: “‘Julia, my God, Julia, Julia, Julia,” Paul said’ (The Limits of Love, by Frederick Raphael); ‘…whispering his name over and over again. “Alec, Alec”’ (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John le Carré); ‘She’s saying “Vic, oh, Vic,” over and over again’ (A Kind of Loving, by Stan Barstow); ‘In tones of frantic endearment she uttered his name over and over again’ (The Bell, by Iris Murdoch). R.F. Delderfield, in Theirs was the Kingdom, makes more of a meal of it: She pulled him down on her, kissing his cheeks and eyes and mouth, and murmuring his name over and over again. No more than that, just ‘Giles…Giles…Giles…’ so that she invested it with a sort of glory and he heard it as music more enthralling than anything Herrick or Marvell had written on the subject of love.
   Shakespeare has more than one comment on this use of a name by a lover, but Juliet’s comment in Romeo and Juliet (2:ii) will suffice: ‘Bondage is hoarse, and may not speak aloud/ Else would I tear the cave where Echo lies,/ And make her airy tongue more hoarse than mine/With repetition of my Romeo’s name.’ Even with the modern exchange of first names at the first meeting and their subsequent casual use, something of this magical quality must remain when lovers says the names of those they love.
   There are still some situations where one person uses another’s first name, but expects a more formal term to be used in reply. This was formerly often the case in a working environment, where an office manager might use his employees’ first names but expect to be called Mr Smith. Room at the Top, by John Braine, comments: ‘Not that I was taken in by his chumminess. It was all very nice of him to call us Joe and Reggie but, I reflected, he wouldn’t have been pleased if we’d called him Fred.’ These unbalanced situations are now probably fewer in number, but a schoolmaster, for instance, using first names to his classmembers, would still expect a more formal reply. C.S.Lewis, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, says: ‘He didn’t call his Father and Mother “Father” and “Mother”, but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people.’ The Canadian novelist Alice Munro, in Lives of Girls and Women, says: ‘He called his mother by her first name, which was Greta. How affected, how unhealthy I thought that was.’ Both novelists are making the same point, although Lewis is more sarcastic. This use of the parental first names does not appear to have spread widely in any of the English-speaking countries. What appears to be such usage often turns out to be the use of a first name to a step-parent, though The Observer newspaper, in an article about the children of divorced parents published in June 1988, gave an example of a young girl who called her father and mother ‘John’ and ‘Marilyn’, mainly because she had to address their new partners by their first names.
   But while ‘father’ and ‘mother’ terms will probably survive, elsewhere the first name, for the moment, reigns supreme. Like many other terms of address, it can be an intimacy or a verbal friendly gesture, but said in a certain tone of voice it can be as unfriendly a term as any other. As a girl says in Bhowani Junction, by John Masters: ‘I thought of calling him “Mr Taylor”, but it sounded silly. I could be just as cold with “Patrick”.’ One wonders how long the first-name fashion will last. Vocative usage clearly does go in fashions. It may take a century for it to happen, but some future recorder of the vocative scene will no doubt be dating the change from first-name usage to the use of- what? - numbers, perhaps? But first names are never likely to regain the sacredness they once possessed.
   One cannot imagine a young lover of the future indignantly complaining about the first name of his loved one being bandied about, as does Frank Churchill in Jane Austen’s Emma: ‘Jane’ indeed! You will observe that I have not yet indulged myself in calling her by that name, even to you. Think, then, what I must have endured in hearing it bandied between the Eltons, with all the vulgarity of needless repetition, and all the insolence of imagined superiority.
   That kind of reverence for a name reflects a reverence for womanhood itself, an attitude which seems decidedly out-dated in these days of equality. It is perhaps not a very meaningful statistic, but in a count of the vocative occurrences in fifty novels, first names on their own were used 5469 times.
   To this should be added the many more occurrences of first names qualified in some way, so that the complete vocative expression was ‘my dear John’, ‘Mary dear’, ‘Sarah my love’, ‘Peter my boy’, etc.

A dictionary of epithets and terms of address . . 2015.

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