I Remain Sir, Your Humble and Obedient Servant: What Did You Say?
May 29, 2012
Are You Using Plain Language or Victorian Prose When Addressing Suppliers or Writing to Customers and Prospects?
With the advent of email, texts, social media and related communication channels we lost the ability to write letters. Not only that but we have lost the ability to communicate clearly.
When we write letters many of us lapse into a formal Victorian format in the belief that we have to do this. For example I recently received a letter that started …
I write in respect of your remittance for your order of March 23rd 2012.
If they had phoned me would they have said this? Would they use words like remittance when they mean payment? Would they use phrases like “in respect of ” .. or would they have said “for” or “about”?
Here are some more words that people use when they think they need to be formal.
Terminate instead of stop;
extant instead of current;
dwelling instead of house, flat or property;
initiate instead of start ..
there are hundreds of examples I could give.
I’m not suggesting we should totally abandon our wonderfully rich language. Far from it. I do however suggest you use appropriate language that your reader will easily understand.
So when writing to prospects and customers aim for readability and not a literary prize or award for Victorian prose.
Interestingly, as late as the 1970s I was still seeing occasional example of Victorian phraseology firmly embedded in some businesses. Today we still have remnants in the use of the words mentioned above. But, with one exception, it is now largely dead in the UK. But what of the history of such language?
The History and Context of Your Humble and Obedient Servant
As stated earlier the phrase is largely Victorian. However, with one exception, it seems to have peaked in the UK in about 1920. It was however included in some textbooks and was therefore still common in some Commonwealth countries that used old textbooks in their English classes until much later. It is likely that the term, and similar terms, in England, were largely used when writing and was less common in speech. So it is formal English that is the context normally associated with the term. However abbreviated forms such as Your Servant Sir, were more common in everyday speech and appear in the literature of the day. .
Variations on Your Humble and Obedient Servant
Variations to the full term include phrases such as Your humble servant, Your Servant and Your most obedient servant. These are the phrases that tended to be used in conversations and greetings ans were a form of moral condescension in some cases. The phrases are however class restricted in that people of similar standing would use them. Servants and other lowly people would have been regarded as impertinent if they were to use these terms as it was clear that they were indeed humble servants and obedience was expected.
Race was also a factor here. White people regard themselves as superior to black or coloured people so would not expect to be addressed by inferiors in this way as it was self evident that they could only be servants.
As racism died out so the need to slight non white people receded at the same time as the terms lose popularity. Though the two are unlikely to be related in other than a temporal way.
Today’s Exceptionally Use of I Remain Sir, Your Humble and Obedient Servant
I said there was an exceptional use of this Victorian term. Debrett’s Peerage, first published in 1769, is the ultimate authority on how to address Royalty. It is clear on how to address HRH, Charles, The Prince of Wales. And Debrett’s insist on letters ending with I remain sir, your humble and obedient servant.
But is Debrett’s advice observed. Well, Charles Clark, when Home Secretary, honoured the advice and tradition. But Tony Blair didn’t. Nor did several other politicians. So perhaps, despite Debrett’s advice, the phrase has ultimately died.
To terminate this deliberation I beg your attention and leave you with a final message.
To conclude I beg of you that you permit me to continue to address you via the medium of the Internet and social media channels.
I remain Sir, your humble and obedient servant.
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