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FROM HUMBLE SERVANTS

I got a flattering email the other day: it called me “your esteemed self”. Nice of you, reader. Yet, to me, odd: he was writing — by British standards — the language of a century ago. In the land where English started life, the world of thanks and compliments, greetings and signings-off, is a very different and simpler place today.

Not entirely, it’s true. There’s still hypocrisy aplenty. Just like our grandfathers, we write Dear Mr X, when we detest the fellow and are about to tell him why. We say Thank you for your letter even when it demands that we repay the money he lent us, and threatens to sue if we don’t. We promise to pay in a week’s time and sign off with Yours sincerely or maybe Yours truly, when even the stupidest Mr X must know, as we do, that we’re lying.

Yet many of the old formalities have gone. When my grandfather wrote to a friend, he began My dear Smith, the lack of a Mr indicating that Smith was indeed a friend, no mere acquaintance or stranger. And Grandpa signed off pretty formally too. In my youth, I’d have written Dear Jack, and ended with Yours. Today, even at my age, I may well start with Hi, and end with some phrase such as See you. I haven’t gone the whole way with the young; the youngish, I mean, not the truly young, whose txtspk is mostly Chinese to me. But one day, who knows?

Not that letter-writers of the past were always formal, or consistent, even with themselves. Dr Johnson, he of the dictionary, writing in mid-1783 to Sir Joshua Reynolds, the grandest of British painters, signed off Your most humble servant — just as he signed off a month later to his good friend and biographer, youthful James Boswell. Yet he would also sign off to Boswell with plain I am, etc — as he might to some doctor, say, whom he slightly knew. Or indeed Yours, etc.

Signing off

Yet, by and large, formality reigned. My grandfather, writing for publication to some newspaper editor, probably ended his letter with I remain, Sir, your obedient servant... These days most of us do without any phrase at all, and newspapers don’t print it if we do.

Of course there are people grander than painters or editors. The Pope is entitled to Your Holiness, the king of anywhere to Your Majesty, an ambassador to Your Excellency. Presidents, mercifully, remain plain Mr President, as do, in many countries, ex-presidents. In Britain (though not America) an Anglican archbishop is Your Grace; so is a duke, not that grace has ever been the commonest ducal quality. And Britain’s potty system of titles has evolved a small forest of what’s technically correct lower down.

Happily, there’s less agreement on how to sign off. But I’ve seen some flowery phrases for use if you’re writing to a Roman Catholic dignitary. Whether hard-line non-Catholics are expected to use them, I wouldn’t know.

Wisely, no sane man, even in Britain, bothers vastly about all this. But if you insist, then google “forms of address” for that country and choose the Wikipedia entry. Or for Americans there’s a book of 550-odd pages with guidance for anything through consuls to rabbis and halves of same-sex couples.

And for Indians? If you’re writing to foreigners, I’d judge “when in Rome, do as the Romans do” to be sound advice, and courteous; that is, follow what is broadly the international pattern, in this case that of the Anglo-Americans. But without too many flowers. And within India? Alas, I haven’t the self-esteem to offer any advice at all. If any kind reader can point me the right way —which neither life nor googling have managed — I shall remain his obedient servant.

thewordcage@yahoo.co.uk