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What children call adults

January 27, 2018

I’ve just been re-reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole – and a jolly entertaining read it is too. But one thing that struck me was how children’s style of referring to grown-ups has changed since the book was published (1984). Adrian refers throughout to the neighbour who runs off with his (Adrian’s) mum as Mr Lucas. And that’s the way it was – back in the day kids always referred to adults by surname. As children we knew all the neighbours down our road by their surnames – the Browns, the Foots, the Spongs, the Strettons and so on. Times have changed and now my kids probably don’t even know the surnames of most of our neighbours. They are on first-name terms with all of them. The only place children now address or refer to adults by their surnames is at school.

Adults who were close friends of the family, however, (I’m talking about the 60s and 70s here) were sometimes called not by their surnames but Auntie or Uncle Whoever. I was about six or seven before I worked out who were the real aunties and uncles and who were the pretend ones. Do kids today still do that? I don’t think they do. As a matter of fact the kids who really are my nieces and nephews hardly ever call me uncle. Another sign of the growing informality of our language.

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    It doesn’t stop either! A while ago I ran into an old school friend whose mother rang him during the course of the evening, I spoke to her briefly and still called her Mrs….I was over fifty at the time.

  2. Simon Carter permalink

    Two pieces from Barry Hines. In his short story Tottenham Hotspurs a young boy at a football match isn’t allowed through the same turnstile as his dad “because that one’s for misters”.
    In the autobiographical Tinker Lane he wrote about being told as a seven year old that a Doug Westerman had been killed down the mine and not realising it was his granddad as he’d never known his name.

  3. Mark Brafield permalink

    This is an interesting question Brandon. We are of the same generation and I clearly remember that when I was growing up, adult friends and neighbours fell into the ‘Auntie and Uncle’ category; they deserved the respect due to our parents, but one could be a little more relaxed with them as you did not have to worry about them disciplining you.

    I remember that at school, in order to mark the transition from fifth form to the more relaxed and adult world of the sixth form, we were encouraged to call our teachers by their first names. I found this excruciatingly embarrassing, and I guess everyone else did too. It was actually more comfortable to call them ‘Sir’ or ‘Mr Jones’ as before, and I expect they felt more comfortable with that as well. I am still friends with one of our teachers and we meet up several times a year. He was just out of teacher training college at the time we were in the sixth form, so he was around 7 years older than us. Nowadays that means nothing, but at the time it seemed an unbridgeable gap. It is only now, however, that I feel comfortable calling him ‘Martin’, but even then with a certain thrill of naughtiness.

    And this brings us on to what children call their parents. I seem to recall that in Viz, the Modern Parents encourage their children to call them by their first names. I would never have dreamed of calling my parents by their first names, although I did wonder how my father felt about being called ‘Dad’ by me for his entire life. It struck me as odd that I should call him by his position, as it were, rather than his name. As a father now myself, however, I realise that when my son calls me ‘Dad’, he is referring to our relationship rather than my position, and, in fact, this feels warmer and closer than if he called me ‘Mark’.

    But the one I have never really got on terms with is what I call my wife, Liz, when referring to her in conversation with my son. My father would always refer to ‘your mother’ which always put me in mind of Victorian Dad, that other great Viz role model. ‘Liz’ is too matey, whereas ‘Mum’ seems too, well, mumsy.

    What does everyone else do ?

  4. Simon Carter permalink

    Ask your mother is still a get out of gaol free card.

  5. In 1983, one of my best friends was facing impending aunt-hood; though 21, I was always behind the curve, and I found the idea of one day being Aunt J — of being in the same category as my superannuated aunts and uncles, all born before 1915 — just too *weird*. So I asked my friend whether the new baby would call her “Aunt Tess” or “Tess”; she adopted a stern face and said, “That baby is going to call me *ma’am*.”

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