Terms of Deference

‘Sir Johnny Clegg’: has a nice ring to it. And well he deserves it.

But this great occasion (if you’re a royalist) had me thinking about terms of respect and how we greet each other. And the subtle messages we send when we do.

As an educator, I have been called many things (not to mention what was muttered behind my back) from ‘Ma’am’ – and ‘mam’ by some who could not spell – to ‘Miss,’ ‘Mrs,’ ‘Ms,’ ‘Mom…’ and even ‘Babe’ once. But that was by mistake – I hope.

Yet men are simply ‘Sir’ and ‘Mister.’ The implied rank of a ‘mrs’ is of higher order than a ‘miss,’ and a ‘ms’ is considered a pathetic attempt by a spinster (itself an interesting term when its connotations are compared to the celebrity status of ‘bachelor’) to hide the fact that she has no ‘mister, despite’ the fact that ‘ms’ was instituted to place men and women on equal footing. We are teaching our children to see married women as at best different from, and at worst better than their single sisters.

Another part of the hidden curriculum we communicate to our students is how we address our maintenance staff, or refer to black administrative employees. How is it that white children can get their tongues around long and complex Polish or Greek surnames, but the cleaner is Thandi and the receptionist is Precious?! Chances are ‘John’ who works in the school garden is in fact Siyabulela, besides being the proud member of the Magaqa family.

It’s so obvious when a caller phones in to a talk show and refers to a ‘black gentleman’ that he very often is making a distinction (and not a good one) between himself and the person in question. It makes me grind my teeth with irritation, as much as those jovial middle aged folk who cheerfully greet the petrol jockey or waiter as ‘chief’ or ‘Jim Fish’ – there is a subtle disrespect in it.

It’s the generic nature of such terms, like the apartheid ‘slave name’ or ‘white name,’ randomly assigned by over-zealous missionaries or lazy and arrogant civil servants to be emblazoned on many a dompas,  that shows contempt for the dignity and history of black South Africans. They take away the individuality of the person addressed and continue the dehumanising work of Verwoerd and his cronies long after Rhodes has fallen.

I love teaching this poem to youngsters because we get to embrace the issues of names and the way we address one another:

My Name

Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa

Look what they have done to my name……..

the wonderful name of my great-great-grandmother

Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa

The burly bureaucrat was surprised

What he heard was music to his ears

‘Wat is daai, se nou weer?’

‘I am from Chief Daluxo Velayigodle of emaMpodweni

And my name is Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa.’

Messia, help me !

My name is simple

And yet so meaningful

But to this man it is trash…..

He gives me a name

Convenient enough to answer his whim…..

I end up being



Nomgqibelo Ncamisile Mnqhibisa


by Magoleng wa Selepe


So while we amuse ourselves by telling tales of which prominent celebrities supposedly refused to accept the honorifics of the queen’s birthday lists over the years (Alfred Hitchcock, David Bowie, Roald Dahl, Robert Graves and Phillip Larkin, to name a few http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-204471/Top-people-refused-honours-named.html) and whether Kevin Spacey deserves to be knighted (NO!), let us simply learn to pronounce folk’s names properly and resist the hidden agendas of sexism and racism.

C A Bentley, Esq.

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