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The King's English: Eighteenth-Century Language

"The Dinner," by Henry Bunbury, London, 1794. CWF acc. no. 1954-698Two points about eighteenth-century English and English-American society are important to keep in mind when considering any type of public behavior in those societies. First of all, they were stratified societies and the ways in which people interacted with one another reflected their relative social positions. Not only how something was said, but when it was said, were reflective of the social positions of the speakers. For example, it was not proper for someone of a lower social rank to offer a greeting to a person of higher rank without having been first addressed by that person. Nor was it proper for the social inferior to end the conversation. Secondly, there was some fluidity between the the levels of society. Money was not enough to lift a person to a higher level, however. Deportment was also important. Deportment included dress, bodily carriage, and using the polite forms of conversation. During the course of the eighteenth century, the middling sort were increasingly able to afford the trappings of gentility, and they were eager to acquire the accomplishments as well. By the late eighteenth century, therefore, many had acquired the rudiments of polite conversation.


Sir, alone, was a common form of address used by all classes in conversation with gentlemen, or with men of the middle classes. Gentry wives called their husbands Sir, and the children called their fathers Sir. It is entirely appropriate to call adult male visitors Sir. Some examples include:
How does your lady, Sir?

Sir, if you please, may I speak with you a moment?
Madam, alone, was used to address gentry women, married or unmarried, young and old. Whether or not the middling sort were using it is not clear. Gentry children called their mothers Madam. It is appropriate to call adult female visitors Madam:
Madam, I am quite amazed.
Madam, I do greatly admire your gown.
Mr., Mrs., and Miss were used, as appropriate, in conjunction with the surname when addressing gentry or prosperous middle-class persons. For example, Mr. Burwell, Mrs. Page, Miss Blair. Husbands and wives often addressed one another in public asMr. or Mrs., plus the surname.

Some colonial officials were addressed using Mr. plus the title of the office held by that person.
Mr. Speaker [Speaker of the House of Burgesses]
Mr. President [President of the Council]
Mr. Attorney [Attorney General]
People in the eighteenth century also addressed each another according to their relationship to one another, including:

Used in context, people said:

To be sure, Husband, you know these matters better than I.

I am glad to see you, Cousin.
Addressing a visitor as Friend was acceptable.

Step-relations and in-laws often addressed one another as if they were blood kin. Thus, step-brothers could address one another as Brother, as could brothers-in-law. The same applies to Father, Mother, Daughter, Son, and Sister. Sons-in-law and daughters-in-law sometimes addressed their spouse-s parent(s) as Mother or Father, plus the parent’s surname. For example: Mother Nelson, Father Page.

Young children also addressed their parents as Papa and Mama. Daughters, at least, continued to address their fathers as Daddy and Papa, even after marriage. Father seems to have been the form used by older boys and men. At least one young Virginia boy called his grandfather Grandpapa.

GREETINGS AND FAREWELLSOffering a greeting along with a tip of the hat

Good morning, good day, good evening, and other similar greetings were used widely by polite society in the eighteenth century. A good day to you, Sir or A good morning to you, Robin (or any nickname) were used informally by the gentry and were more likely than the abbreviated forms above to be used by the middling sort and lower in addressing the gentry as well as each other.

How do you do? was a common greeting in genteel society during the eighteenth century. It survives in the now-casual "How 'ya doin'?" How do you do? was often followed by either an inquiry after the other person's family, or by an expression of pleasure at seeing the other person. Sometimes an inquiry after the family of the person addressed was used alone as a greeting:

How do you do, Mr. Harrison? I'm right heartily glad to see you.

How does your father, old fellow? [gentleman to gentleman]

How do you do? How does all at home?

Your servant, or variations such as Your humble servant and Your most obedient servant, were also polite greetings among the gentry and middling sorts. This greeting originated as a form of gracious condescension. It would have been redundant, and therefore impertinent, for a white person of low status, a servant, or a slave to address his superior in this fashion. A member of the gentry and a prosperous middle-class person, however, might each have used this expression to address the other:

Sir, I am your most obedient servant. I am heartily glad to see you.

[First gentleman]: Sir, your humble servant. I'm very glad to see you.

[Second gentleman]: Sir, I am yours. How does your family?

In a conversation between social equals or near equals, politeness required the second party to affirm that he/she was the servant of the first party.

All of the above greetings were commonly used by gentlemen. Ladies used How do you do? and inquiries about family, particularly female members of the other person's family. Ladies appear to have been more likely to have used I am glad to see you, rather than right heartily glad or heartily glad. They also appear to have used the Your servant type of greeting with less frequency than did gentlemen. Of course, Good day was an acceptable greeting for both ladies and gentlemen.

The most common form of genteel farewell seems to have been of the your servant variety and appears to have been used by the middling sorts and above. Again, the second party returned the civility:

[1st party]: ... and so, your servant, Sir.

[2nd party]: Sir, I am yours.


Your servant, Sir.


Yours, Sir.

Your servant could be expanded to Your humble servant, Your obedient servant, or (if you wanted to be really subservient) Your most obedient and humble servant.

A signal for departure used mainly by gentlemen with their social equals was By your leave, sometimes varied to With your permission:

[1st Gentleman]: ... by your leave, Sir.

[2nd Gentleman]: Your servant, Sir.

The gentry and higher social ranks also employed French phrases at times in conversation, and Adieu was used as a sort of breezy farewell among friends or family.

Acceptable to all genders and stations were variations on Good day:

[1st party]: I wish you a good evening, Sir/Madam.

or (less formal)

Good evening to you, Sir/Madam/Friend. or (informal)

Good night to you, Robin.

[2nd party]: The like to you, Sir/Madam/ Friend.

or (still again!) Your servant.

For those of you who find the phrase irritating, it may be a comfort to know that "Have a nice day" did not originate in the 1970s; it has its roots in the civil Good day to you of earlier centuries.

Cathy Hellier
Department of Historical Research