I’m a fan of the ITV police procedural series Midsomer Murders and also a sometime scholar of address terms, so my ears perked up in S16 E1 of the show, in which DS Charlie Nelson (N), played by Gwilym Lee, joins DI John Barnaby (B), played by Neil Dudgeon, for their first case together and B tells N to investigate recording devices at the scene of the murder. Then:

N: I’m on to that, guv.

B: I’m sure this is the start of a successful working relationship, DS Nelson, but it’ll go a lot more smoothly if you don’t call me “guv”.

N: Sir.

B objects to N’s guv ‘sir’ (used for a boss). B sees it as inappropriately informal: too matey. B is middle class, while N is depicted as of working class origins — guv is notably working class  — and also quite informal in his dress and approach to social relations. So N probably sees guv as respectful within his bounds of class and formality (though he understands how to use sir), but for B it’s doubly out of bounds; it’s hard to imagine B ever using guv to anyone, except playfully.

(In line with all this, B works almost invariably in a white or off-white shirt, tie, and business jacket, while N quite possibly doesn’t own any of these three things.) Here are the characters on the job (in S17 E4, “A Vintage Murder”):


And the two actors together on set:


together with B’s dog Sykes (who arrives in Midsomer County with B in S14 E1).

Now, the road to guv. From Green’s Dictionary of Slang, edited for brevity:

guvnor  (with various spellings) [from governor] [AZ: often associated with cockney speakers] 1 a boss, an important, influential person. 1845 … lead the way to the guv’ner, old frizzle … 2 a general term of address. 1861 (Mayhew) Guv’ner, what’ll you give me to wear that coat for you, and show off your coat? 3 one’s father 1841 (from Punch)

A friend with whom I discussed this item said it reminded him of the language of Dickens’s working-class characters. Green’s doesn’t cite any Dickens, but it’s there, for instance in several  uses of vocative guv’nor in Bleak House (serialized 1852-53).. No doubt there were street uses going back earlier, possibly to the beginning of the 19th century. In any case, the non-standard item guvnor has been used for roughly two centuries, both referentially and vocatively, to men (usually men of higher status than the speaker).

Then comes the clipped gov (also gov). From Green’s, with the same three spheres of usage:

1 a general term of address, usu. to someone seen as superior or to one actually higher in the social order. [esp. associated with cockney speakers] (1891 cite)   2 one’s father (1882 cite) 3 a senior figure, ‘the boss’. (1950 cite)

DS Nelson’s use to DI Barnaby combines elements of 1 and 3 here.

4 Responses to “guv”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    See also Inspector George Gently, in which DS John Bacchus pretty much invariably addresses the title character as “guv”. (Similar class distinction, and the show is set in the 1960s, when such distinctions were probably more important than they are today.)

    Also, one of my favorite moments in British crime television occurred in a late (possibly the final) season of Prime Suspect, in which DCI Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren), whose team generally calls her “guv”, scolds a new subordinate who addresses her with the more formal “ma’am”: “Don’t call me ‘ma’am’, I’m not the bloody Queen”. Which was especially delicious because it aired in the US while the film The Queen, in which Helen Mirren did in fact play HMQ, was in movie theaters.

  2. JJM Says:

    You’ve alluded to but missed the most obvious aspect of “guv”: it has long been used as an informal substitute for “sir/ma’am” by sergeants and constables in UK police forces to address those of the rank of inspector and up (i.e., the equivalent of commissioned officers in the army).

    But note: its use will depend on the working relationship: “guv” in a close-knit team; “sir/ma’am” in a more public, formal situation.

    That’s why it pops up so frequently in British police detective shows.

    (Incidentally, in UK police terms, “guv” has generally little to do with class; police inspectors begin their careers as police constables. A DI and a DS are quite likely to come from exactly the same background and career path.)

  3. Link love: language (67) | Sentence first Says:

    […] Guv as a term of address. […]

  4. John Cowan Says:

    I expect the underlying basis of governor is the same as the American boss, namely avoidance of the most traditional word for addressing a superior, master. Americans are especially allergic to this word, since it was used by slaves, but the growth of at least partial egalitarianism in Britain has probably helped push it aside.

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