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Sir is an honorific used as a title (see Knight), or as a courtesy title to address a man without using his given or family name in most English speaking cultures. It is often used in formal correspondence (Dear Sir, Right Reverend Sir).

The term was once reserved for use only towards equals, one of superior rank or status, such as an educator or commanding officer, an elder (especially by a minor), or as a form of address from a merchant to a customer.

Equivalent terms of address are "ma'am" or "madam" in most cases, or in the case of a very young woman, girl, or unmarried woman who prefers to be addressed as such, "miss". The equivalent term for a knighted woman is Dame, or "Lady" for the wife of a knight.

Origin

Sir derives from the Middle French honorific title sire (messire gave 'mylord'), from the Old French sieur (itself a contraction of Seigneur meaning 'lord'), from the Latin adjective senior (elder), which yielded titles of respect in many European languages.The form sir is first documented in English in 1297, as title of honor of a knight or baronet, being a variant of sire, which was already used in English since at least c.1205 as a title placed before a name and denoting knighthood, and to address the (male) Sovereign since c.1225, with additional general senses of "father, male parent" is from c.1250 and "important elderly man" from 1362.

Formal styling

In formal protocol Sir is the correct styling for a knight or a baronet (the UKmarker nobiliary rank just below all peers of the realm), used with (one of) the knight's given name(s) or full name, but not with the surname alone ("Sir James Paul McCartney", "Sir Paul McCartney", or "Sir Paul", but never "Sir McCartney"). The equivalent for a woman is Dame, that is, for one who holds the title in her own right. This usage was devised in 1917, derived from the practice, up to the 17th century (and still also in legal proceedings), for the wife of a knight. The wife of a knight or baronet now, however, is styled "Lady [Surname]" (e.g. "Lady McCartney", but never "Lady Heather McCartney", which is reserved for the daughter of a duke, marquess or earl, or now, more recently, for a female member of the Orders of the Garter and the Thistle who possesses no higher title).

In the case of a military officer who is also a knight, the appropriate form of address puts the professional military rank first, then the correct manner of address for the individual, then his name, e.g.,

This is also the case with academic titles such as professor:

With regard to British knighthood, a person who is not a citizen of a Commonwealth realm who receives an honorary knighthood is entitled to use any postnominal letters associated with the knighthood, but not the title "Sir".

Dual national holding a Commonwealth citizenship that recognise the British monarch as head of state are entitled to use the styling. Common usage varies from country to country: for instance, dual Bahamianmarker-American citizen Sidney Poitier, knighted in 1974, is often styled "Sir Sidney Poitier", particularly in connection with his official ambassadorial duties, although he himself rarely employs the title.

Especially in North America, the style "Sir" is frequently employed by knights of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre (female members of that order are styled Lady).

Use in disciplined services

The common use of Sir instead of the rank specific address for a senior officer in a military, police or other hierarchical organisation is rather specific to English. In most languages, no such general address is considered respectful, or the two are combined, as in German Herr followed by the rank.

"Sir", on its own, is sometimes used by schoolchildren to address a male teacher. It is common in British tabloid newspaper slang as a shorthand for 'schoolteacher': Sir's sex shame. Usage of "sir" commonly appears in schools in portions of the Southern United States.

When addressing a male superior (e.g. Officer or Warrant Officer, but not usually a non-commissioned officer, in the military), "sir" is used to replace his specific rank.(Despite its use in many fictional works, this is not a term used for female superiors.) However, a United States Marine recruit addresses both commissioned and non-commissioned officers as "sir", especially drill instructors. Enlisted members of the United States Air Force always address superior non-commissioned officers--including Military Training Instructors--as "sir" and, in certain situations, even non-NCOs may be addressed as "sir", most often Senior Airmen (E-4s) serving as training leaders or instructors at technical schools.

Possibly the shortness of the word helps explain another idiomatic but non-official practice in American English: emphatically saying Sir both before and after an obedient response to the senior, especially during drill, e.g., "Sir, yes, sir!". This is practiced by the US Coast Guard recruits. .

In both the United States Army and British Armed Forces, addressing an NCO as "Sir" is incorrect. In the British Army, however, an NCO is referred to as "sir" when an officer is on parade and warrant officers are addressed as "Sir".

In the Royal Canadian Mounted Policemarker, only commissioned officers are addressed as "sir"; NCOs and constables are addressed by their rank. British police officers of the rank of Inspector or above are addressed as "Sir", the more familiar form of address as "Boss", "Gaffer" or "Guv" (short for "governor") being largely inventions of popular TV and cinema.

Miscellaneous

  • Until the 17th century it was also a title of priests (the related word monsignor, from French monseigneur, is still used for Catholic prelates). In Icelandic, the cognate word séra is used exclusively to address a priest, together with his first name: a priest called Jón Jónsson will be addressed as séra Jón and referred to as presturinn séra Jón Jónsson ("the priest, séra Jón Jónsson").
  • Various persons in authority, e.g. District Judges in the United Kingdom, are also addressed as "sir".
  • Sirrah was a 16th century derivative that implied the inferiority of the addressee.
  • The informal forms sirree and siree are merely devised for emphasis in speech, mainly after Yes or No.
  • Not to be confused with the now exclusively monarchical (i.e. royal) Sire, even though this has the same etymological root.
  • Sir and various Indianized variants such as Sirjee (sir with jee, an Indian honorific) are rather commonly used in Indian English and even vernacular languages. Another Indian extension is using Sir after the name, such as Gandhi Sir.


References




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