[Spencer's “Progress: Its Law and Cause” originally appeared in the British Quarterly. This text has comes from the Project Gutenberg online version of the Everyman edition of Essays of EducationGeorge P. Landow]

From “Progress: Its Law and Cause”

All titles of honour are originally the names of the god-king; afterwards of God and the king; still later of persons of high rank; and finally come, some of them, to be used between man and man. All forms of complimentary address were at first the expressions of submission from prisoners to their conqueror, or from subjects to their ruler, either human or divine—expressions that were afterwards used to propitiate subordinate authorities, and slowly descended into ordinary intercourse. All modes of salutation were once obeisances made before the monarch and used in worship of him after his death.

From “On Manners and Fashion”

Herr, Don, Signior, Seigneur, Sennor, were all originally names of rulers—of feudal lords. By the complimentary use of these names to all who could, on any pretence, be supposed to merit them, and by successive degradations of them from each step in the descent to a still lower one, they have come to be common forms of address. At first the phrase in which a serf accosted his despotic chief, mein herr is now familiarly applied in Germany to ordinary people. The Spanish title Don, once proper to noblemen and gentlemen only, is now accorded to all classes. So, too, is it with Signior in Italy. Seigneur and Monseigneur, by contraction in Sieur and Monsieur, have produced the term of respect claimed by every Frenchman. And whether Sire be or be not a like contraction of Signior, it is clear that, as it was borne by sundry of the ancient feudal lords of France, who, as Selden says, "affected rather to bee stiled by the name of Sire than Baron, as Le Sire de Montmorencie, Le Sire de Beauieu, and the like," and as it has been commonly used to monarchs, our word Sir, which is derived from it, originally meant lord or king. Thus, too, is it with feminine titles. Lady, which, according to Horne Tooke, means exalted, and was at first given only to the few, is now given to all women of education. Dame, once an honourable name to which, in old books, we find the epithets of "high-born" and "stately" affixed, has now, by repeated widenings of its application, become relatively a term of contempt. And if we trace the compound of this, ma Dame, through its contractions—Madam, ma'am, mam, mum, we find that the "Yes'm" of Sally to her mistress is originally equivalent to "Yes, my exalted," or "Yes, your highness." Throughout, therefore, the genesis of words of honour has been the same. Just as with the Jews and with the Romans, has it been with the modern Europeans. Tracing these everyday names to their primitive significations of lord and king, and remembering that in aboriginal societies these were applied only to the gods and their descendants, we arrive at the conclusion that our familiar Sir and Monsieur are, in their primary and expanded meanings, terms of adoration.

Further to illustrate this gradual depreciation of titles and to confirm the inference drawn, it may be well to notice in passing, that the oldest of them have, as might be expected, been depreciated to the greatest extent. Thus, Master—a word proved by its derivation and by the similarity of the connate words in other languages (Fr., maître for master; Russ., master: Dan., meester; Ger., meister) to have been one of the earliest in use for expressing lordship—has now become applicable to children only, and under the modification of "Mister," to persons next above the labourer. Again, knighthood, the oldest kind of dignity, is also the lowest; and Knight Bachelor, which is the lowest order of knighthood, is more ancient than any other of the orders. Similarly, too, with the peerage, Baron is alike the earliest and least elevated of its divisions. This continual degradation of all names of honour has, from time to time, made it requisite to introduce new ones having that distinguishing effect which the originals had lost by generality of use; just as our habit of misapplying superlatives has, by gradually destroying their force, entailed the need for fresh ones. And if, within the last thousand years, this process has produced effects thus marked, we may readily conceive how, during previous thousands, the titles of gods and demi-gods came to be used to all persons exercising power; as they have since come to be used to persons of respectability.

If from names of honour we turn to phrases of honour, we find similar facts. The Oriental styles of address, applied to ordinary people—"I am your slave," "All I have is yours," "I am your sacrifice"—attribute to the individual spoken to the same greatness that Monsieur and My Lord do: they ascribe to him the character of an all-powerful ruler, so immeasurably superior to the speaker as to be his owner. So, likewise, with the Polish expressions of respect—"I throw myself under your feet," "I kiss your feet." In our now meaningless subscription to a formal letter—"Your most obedient servant,"—the same thing is visible. Nay, even in the familiar signature "Yours faithfully," the "yours," if interpreted as originally meant, is the expression of a slave to his master.

All these dead forms were once living embodiments of fact—were primarily the genuine indications of that submission to authority which they verbally assert; were afterwards naturally used by the weak and cowardly to propitiate those above them; gradually grew to be considered the due of such; and, by a continually wider misuse, have lost their meanings, as Sir and Master have done. That, like titles, they were in the beginning used only to the God-king, is indicated by the fact that, like titles, they were subsequently used in common to God and the king. Religious worship has ever largely consisted of professions of obedience, of being God's servants, of belonging to him to do what he will with. Like titles, therefore, these common phrases of honour had a devotional origin.

Perhaps, however, it is in the use of the word you as a singular pronoun that the popularising of what were once supreme distinctions is most markedly illustrated. This speaking of a single individual in the plural was originally an honour given only to the highest—was the reciprocal of the imperial "we" assumed by such. Yet now, by being applied to successively lower and lower classes, it has become all but universal. Only by one sect of Christians, and in a few secluded districts, is the primitive thou still used. And the you, in becoming common to all ranks, has simultaneously lost every vestige of the honour once attaching to it.

Related material

Last modified 19 November 2019