Sore Subject – An Irishman’s Diary about unwelcome forms of address
“Sir”, a one-word honorific that, outside commercial contexts where it doesn’t mean anything, had never been applied to me before
Unlike our London Editor, I can’t claim ever to have had an allergic reaction to being called “mate” by anyone (London Letter, January 19th).
But reading about his recent experience in a taxi did remind me of a similar trauma some years ago: the first time I heard myself described as “sir”.
I was running at the time, in a Dublin park, past a football pitch where there was a youth game in progress. The ball was booted across the sideline, in my general direction. So the player nearest appealed to me to kick it back, using a one-word honorific that, outside commercial contexts where it doesn’t mean anything, had never been applied to me before.
At first, in the Dublin accent, it sounded like he was saying “Sore”. And that was a fair enough description of how I felt at the time, as a 40-something runner trying to get back into shape. To his apparent question of “Sore? Sore?”, I could easily have answered: “Yes, a bit – thanks for asking.”
But by then I realised he was conferring a title: the same one, presumably, he had been taught to use with his team manager.
In effect, he was addressing me with the respect due for the perceived vast age difference between us. As I kicked the ball back, I had suddenly grown a decade older.
There was a time when the promotion would have been more welcome. I’m sure that as a boy I was occasionally offended by being called “avick” (from the Irish a mhic), the standard address to youth by men of my father’s generation.
It was always meant affectionately, but often it was laced with unwanted concern for your tender years. “Give me that, avick”, I would be told if seen trying to lift something too heavy. Being in a hurry to grow up, I didn’t always appreciate the protectiveness.
Then there was “master”: that strange title that appeared before your name on any letters or cards you might get at the time. It seemed as old-fashioned, even then, as the mysterious “Esq.” that followed my father’s name on official correspondence. But I was impatient to get rid of it too, and become a “mister”, as soon as possible.
Mind you, outside of letters, “mister” is a dubious honour in Ireland. Only native-born Dubliners use it as a spoken form of address: usually again when there is an age gap. And the respect it implies is a thin veneer, in my experience, especially when the speaker is a street-wise inner-city kid. “Mister! Mister! Your fly’s open” is not untypical usage to a passing stranger.
“Pal” is another thing you don’t necessarily want to be called in Dublin, its implication of friendship notwithstanding.
In some contexts, for example the question “What are you going to do about it, pal?”, it can be the verbal equivalent of a bottle being smashed on a table and waved at you.
But local context is always important. In parts of Ireland, “scoby” seems to be an affectionate form of address, although according to my Hiberno-English dictionary it means a “rough, uncouth youth”. Maybe I missed the intended insult any time it was levelled at me, but I always took it to be no worse than “boss” or “horse” or the various other things you could be called in Meath.
Getting back to “sir”, it is as I say used all the time in shops and in the sort of phone conversations that may be recorded for training purposes.
The honorific doesn’t count much there, however. If anything, when overused, the word can be just a distancing mechanism, a politer version of “talk to the hand”.
In fact, even when pronounced as “sore”, by teenage or twenty-something Dublin footballers, the implied respect can be shallow. Running past the aforementioned football pitch on a later occasion, I was again invited to return the ball, except that this time it went behind me and I wasn’t stopping.
Still wearing glasses then, I was quickly demoted from “sore” to “speccy bollocks”.
Thanks to running, by the way, I am now a “master” for the second time in life. In a moment of weakness recently, I was talked into being part of a team for what is euphemistically titled the Dublin “Masters” cross-country championships.
This means you have to be at least 35, or in our category (shockingly) 50. I was tempted to call some of the younger participants “avick”.
As for myself, after a lung-bursting sprint to finish 239th, I was definitely, once and for all, “Sore”.