Mind your language

Dot Wordsworth: Don't call him Revd Flowers!

There are worse sins. But this is one of the most irritating

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

30 November 2013

9:00 AM

‘Here,’ said my husband, chucking a folded-back copy of the Daily Telegraph to me, ‘this’ll interest you.’ For once he was right.

It was a reader’s letter. ‘My distress at the Paul Flowers debacle (I am a Methodist) has been increased by the BBC and others referring to “the Reverend Flowers”,’ wrote Lesley Barnes of Henfield, West Sussex. ‘As your paper, at least, is aware, this man is the Revd Paul Flowers or Mr Flowers, but never Revd Flowers. Even our Eton-educated Prime Minister seems not to know this.’

It distressed me too. Even George Parker of the Financial Times was at it on Radio 4. Where have these people been living, Arkansas? Would they call Dominic Lawson ‘the Honourable Lawson’? Would they call the Archdeacon of Lichfield ‘the Venerable Baker’? Perhaps they would.

The Oxford English Dictionary is very clear on the matter. The use of Reverend without a forename, initial, or other title, such as Doctor or Professor ‘has typically been considered unacceptable’, although ‘in American English, this style is widely and uncontroversially attested from at least the 19th century’. In saying this, the dictionary is not setting itself up as an arbiter of courtesy, but recording the rules of usage.

There may, though, have been an element of fun in the lexicographers choosing the latest illustrative quotation, from the Church Times: ‘The Reverend Stephen Griffith the Apokrisarios of the Archbishop of Canterbury and Anglican Chaplain in the Caucasus.’ Apokrisarios is not a word listed elsewhere in the dictionary, but it perpetuates ecclesiastically an ancient title of representatives of the Emperor of Byzantium. Mr Griffith now lives, I think, in Mortlake.

Is the new ignorance of titles connected to the lack of manners observable at Prime Minister’s Questions each Wednesday? We do live in a polity where men and women are no longer called Mr, Mrs or Miss in newspapers. All are referred to by surname alone, as if they were scholarly sources or convicted criminals. More titles, please, I say. The Alderman, extinct since 1978, would be a useful species to reintroduce. I hear that they still thrive in Canada. Why not here?

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