Address terms

The Economist piece on politeness in language (briefly described here) says a lot about address terms (in English, the possibilities include first name FN, last name LN, FN + LN, any of these plus a prefix, like Mr., or a title, like Dr., and a title on its own). This is a topic dear to my heart, ever since a paper (“Hey, whatsyourname!”) I wrote in 1974 on vocatives in English. And it links to a New York Times piece (Anne Marie Valinoti, “Exam-Room Rules: What’s in a Name?”) I’ve been meaning to post about briefly since it appeared on December 15.

Valinoti (an internist in northern New Jersey) mused on the address terms in medical contexts, noting that in her own career, she’s always been addressed as “Dr. Valinoti”, while nurses (no matter what their age, experience, or status) are addressed with FN, and going on to treat asymmetries (and symmetries) in doctor-patient relationships.

Doctor-patient address terminology often needs to be negotiated. Here’s Valinoti’s practice (which not all doctors follow):

Regardless of whether I am “Anne Marie” or “Dr. Valinoti” to a patient, I rarely call a patient by his or her first name. As a rule, patients who are my senior are always “Mr./Ms./Dr.” Patients I meet for the first time are always addressed by their title … Although many patients introduce themselves by their first name, I would never presume to address them as such without their specific permission.

Preferences differ:

A study published in The British Medical Journal looked at the question of patient preferences regarding how doctors address them. Interestingly, most [but by no means all] patients surveyed, particularly those younger than 65, preferred that their physicians call them by their first name.

Valinoti sees these things not merely as a matter of etiquette, but also as an important part of doctor-patient communication, since

Accurate diagnosis and treatment of medical ailments depend on the doctor’s clear understanding of the entire person who sits before her.

2 Responses to “Address terms”

  1. John Cowan Says:

    Nice paper! Comments in haste:

    In 30, it seems to me that doctor and professor work because they are occupational titles, whereas surgeon and assistant professor don’t work because they are words for occupations but not titles. Per contra, private is a title, but not the name of an occupation.

    33 (cabby as an address) sounds fine to me.

    I think the descriptive adjectives in 40 work iff they are names; adjectives that are not names, like thin, don’t work.

    In 48, fool as an address (not a call, too many people might turn around) is definitely fine with me.

    In 49-51, Bartender etc. work as names, but not as titles either vocatively or referentially, because they are occupations but not titles; see above.

    In 59, Uncle Coleman sounds okay to me if the referent is unique; I had Uncle Morry Culp as distinct from another Uncle Morry in my family.

  2. Brief notice: boss 3/12/13 | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] (Address terms are a long-standing interest of mine. Discussion of pal and sport here, boy here, and medical address terms here.) […]

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