Friday, 30 April 2010

What's in a name?

The main character in Alexander McCall Smith’s academic satire, Portuguese Irregular Verbs, is a larger-than-life figure with a larger-than-life name: Prof Dr Moritz-Maria von Igelfeld. The absurdity of his name lies not in the fact that his name in English means Hedgehog Field (=Igelfeld), but in the use of his ‘double-barrelled’ academic title, for in English it’s just not possible to call yourself Professor and Doctor at the same time…
Surprisingly perhaps, for a society which is allegedly class-ridden, the British are rather timid about using official titles. The only ones we ever use as academic titles are Professor (Prof) and Doctor (Dr) – and NEVER together for the same person! We use these, and other references to academic and business qualifications, almost exclusively for professional purposes. In fact, someone who goes around flashing their academic title in everyday situations is considered slightly pompous. We like to be modest about our achievements. You might put a MSc or a BEd against your name on a business card, but you might risk being mocked as pretentious if you band it around in private circles. In fact, over the last few decades there has been a tendency to dumb down whenever it comes to titles and surnames, even in the business world, with most people slipping into first-name terms on the first meeting – almost to the extent that you are left second guessing their occupational background and qualifications.
On the continent however, non-English persons are often unhappy about relinquishing their academic titles, especially in English-language texts intended for professional purposes - where one might reasonably expect this reluctance - but equally so in everyday situations. Supposedly, it helps them single themselves out from the rest. However, the fact is Dutch titles - at least those of a lower academic standing than Professor or Doctor - such as Drs, Ir, Ing and Mr (a potentially very confusing one!), are completely unknown in the Anglo-Saxon world. So far from adding any value to their status, they probably detract, and will actually leave the average English speaker pretty nonplussed.
An English friend of mine who’d just moved to the Netherlands once told me his next door neighbours had a nameplate on the front door with the words “Drs L. Smit-Janssen”. He automatically assumed, of course, that he was living next door to a medical practice run by a Dr Smit and a Dr Janssen…

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