‘Sir, Madam, Miss’? Being Polite in Old English


‘Sir, Madam, Miss’? Being Polite in Old English

It is not uncommon for hierarchically ordered societies to make much of titles and polite address. And so a student of Old English might well wonder how the Anglo-Saxons, with their royalty, aristocracy, freemen, and slaves, expressed deference in speech. In other words, what were the equivalents of our ‘sir, mister, madam, ma’am, miss, my lord, my lady,’ etc.?

A common way of expressing deference or respect in address was to use the adjective lēof ‘dear’ (> ModE lief) in the “vocative,” usually with the nominative strong adjective inflection, and with or without the “vocative” particle (ēa)lā preposed. This adjective could be used when addressing a man (‘sir(e), mister, my lord, master,’ etc.), God (‘(O) Lord, dear Lord’), and presumably a woman (‘madam, ma’am, miss, my lady, mistress,’ etc.):

Ne geweorðe hit, la leof, þæt þu yfelne dom gesette (Gen 18.25) ‘far be if from you to do such a thing,’ lit., ‘let it not happen that you, sir, pass wicked judgement’ (absit a te ut rem hanc facias).
Þine stefne ic hierde, leof, on neorxnawange, and ic ondræde me (Gen 3.10) ‘Thy voice I heard in the garden, and I was afraid’ (vocem tuam audivi in paradiso et timui eo), with God as the one addressed.
Hie andswarodon and cwædon, “Gea, leof (Nic(A) 132) ‘they answered, saying, “Yes, Your Honour.”’

Noteworthy in the first two examples (and elsewhere) is the OE translator’s introduction of lēof where nothing comparable existed in the Vorlage, here the Vulgate. This suggests that a not infrequent use of lēof in discourse was idiomatic to OE.

The adjective, moreover, could be combined with a title (e.g., cyning ‘king’) or with a word so used (e.g., fæder ‘father,’ hlāford ‘lord, master’):

He andwyrde sona, “Þu leofa cyning, leofa þu on ecnesse, min God me asende to sona his engel” (ÆHom 22.326) ‘he answered at once, “Your Highness, Your enduring Majesty, to me did my God send his angel without delay.”’
Wulfstan arceb. grett Cnut cyning his hlaford and Ælfgiefe þa hlæfdigan, and ic cyðe inc, leof, þæt … (Ch1386 (Harm 27) 2) ‘Archbishop Wulfstan sends his greetings to his lord King Cnut and the lady Emma, and I inform you both, sire, that …’
[Hie] cwædon to him, “La leof fæder, Ioseph leofað þin sunu (Gen 45.26) ‘[they] said to him, “Father, your son Joseph is alive”’ (nuntiaverunt ei dicentes Ioseph vivit).
Hwæt sægst þu, ierðling? Hu begæst þu weorc þin? — Eala leof hlaford, þearle ic deorfe (ÆColl 25) ‘What about you, ploughman? How do you go about your work? — O, master, I work hard’ (quid dicis tu, arator? quomodo exerces opus tuum? — O, mi domine, nimium laboro).

As the first of these last four examples shows, the corresponding weak ending could also be used instead (cf. Gothic where an attributive adjective in the vocative is weak, if the adjective can take weak endings).

If more than one person were addressed, then lēof, of course, needed to be in the plural:

Leofan menn, uton don swa us micel þearf is (WHom 7a.15) ‘dearly beloved, let us do as it is most needful for us to do’ (in a secular context, leofan menn, lit. ‘dear people,’ would presumably correspond to ‘ladies and gentleman’).
Ealle þas þing, leofe gebroðru, Abrahames bearn foresægdon (LS 11 (James) 85) ‘all these things, dear brethren, Abraham’s offspring had proclaimed.’

The weak form of the adjective could also appear coupled with a possessive adjective:

[He] cwæð to þæm biscope, mid bliðre ansiene, “Min leofa, underfoh þis” (ÆLS (Denis) 264) ‘[he] said to the bishop, with a joyful countenance, “Accept this, Your Grace.”’
Min leofa, ic þe lære  þæt … (Conf 10.1 (Thorp) 30) ‘sir, I will instruct you that …’

The reflex of lēof continued to be used in polite address as late as the seventeenth century. Consider, for example, “Lief bellyn wherfore be ye angry?” (Caxton’s Reynard of 1481, cited in the OED, “lief”).

(The spelling in all the OE examples above has been normalized.)

2 thoughts on “‘Sir, Madam, Miss’? Being Polite in Old English

  1. This covered the uses of ; are these the only ways to express “sir, madam” and other polite expressions in Old English? Were there not nouns of the meaning ‘sir’ or ‘madam’ or ‘miss’ or ‘mister’, etc.?


    • Hi, Andrew. As far as I can tell, ‘lēof’ was the all-purpose marker of politeness in Old English. I have not come across anything really comparable to ‘sir(e).’ Incidentally, the latter is simply a variant form of French ‘seigneur’ < Latin ‘senior.’


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