1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sir

SIR (Fr. sire, like sieur a variant of seigneur,[1] from Lat. senior, comparative of senex, “old”), a title of honour. As a definite style it is now confined in the dominions of the British crown to baronets, knights of the various orders, and knights bachelor. It is never used with the surname only, being prefixed to the Christian name of the bearer; e.g. Sir William Jones. In formal written address, in the case of baronets the abbreviation Barᵗ, Bart. or Bᵗ (baronet) is added after the surname,[2] in the case of knights of any of the orders the letters indicating his style (K.G., K.C.B., &c.). In conversation a knight or baronet is addressed by the prefix and Christian name only (e.g. “Sir William”). The prefix Sir, like the French sire, was originally applied loosely to any person of position as a mere honorific distinction (as the equivalent of dominus, lord), as it still is in polite address, but Selden (Titles of Honor, p. 643) points out that as a distinct title “prefixed to the Christian names in compellations and expressions of knights” its use “is very ancient,” and that in the reign of Edward I. it was “so much taken to be parcel of their names” that the Jews in their documents merely transliterated it, instead of translating it by its Hebrew equivalent, as they would have done in the case of e.g. the Latin form dominus.

How much earlier this custom originated it is difficult to say, owing to the ambiguity of extant documents, which are mainly in Latin. Much light is, however, thrown upon the matter by the Norman-French poem Guillaume le Mareschal,[3] which was written early in the 13th century. In this Sire is obviously used in the general sense mentioned above, i.e. as a title of honour applicable to all men of rank, whether royal princes or simple knights. The French king's son is “Sire Loeis” (l. 17741), the English king's son is “Sire Richard li filz le roi” (l. 17376); the marshal himself is “Sire Johan li Mareschals” (17014). We also find such notable names as “Sire Hubert de Burc” (ll. 17308, 17357) and “Sire Hue de Bigot”—

Qui par lignage esteit des buens,
E aprés son pere fu cuens,”[4]

and such simple knight's as “Sire Johan d'Erlée” (Early in Berks), the originator of the poem, who was squire to William the Marshal, or “Seingnor Will, de Monceals,” who, though of very good family, was but constable of a castle. Throughout the poem, moreover, though Sire is the form commonly used it is freely interchanged with Seignor and Monseignor. Thus we have “Seingnor Hue. de Corni” (l. 10935), “Sire Hug. de Corni” (l. 10945) and “Monseingnor Huon de Corni” (l. 10955). Occasionally it is replaced by Dan (dominus), e.g. the brother of Louis VII. of France is “Dan Pierre de Cortenei” (l. 2131). Very rarely the e of Sire is dropped and we have Sir: e.g. “Sir Will.” (l. 12513). Sometimes, where the surname is not territorial, the effect is closely approximate to more modern usage: e.g. “Sire Aleins Basset,” “Sire Enris li filz Gerolt” (Sir Henry Fitz Gerald), “Sire Girard Talebot,” “Sire Robert Tresgoz.”

It is notable that in connexion with a name the title Sire in the poem usually stands by itself: sometimes mis (my) is prefixed, but never li (the). Standing alone, however, Sire denominates a class and the article is prefixed: e.g. les seirs d'Engleterre—the lords of England—(l. 15837).[5] “Sire,” “Seignor” are used in addressing the king or a great noble.

It is thus not difficult to see how the title “Sir” came in England to be “prefixed to the expressions of knights.” Knight- hood was the necessary concomitant of rank, the ultimate proof of nobility. The title that expressed this was “Sire” or “Sir” prefixed to the Christian name. In the case of earls or barons it might be lost in that of the higher rank, though this was not universal even much later: e.g. in the 14th century, Sir Henry Percy, the earl marshal, or Sir John Cobham, Lord Oldcastle. The process by which the title lost all connotation of nobility would open up the whole question of the evolution of classes in England (see Gentleman). In the case of baronets the prefix “Sir” before the Christian name was ordained by King James I. when he created the order.

The old use of “Sir” as the style of the clergy, representing a translation of dominus, would seem to be of later origin; in Guillaume le Mareschal even a high dignitary of the church is still maistre (master): e.g. “Maistre Pierres li cardonals” (l. 11399). It survived until the honorific prefix “Reverend” became stereotyped as a clerical title in the 17th century. It was thus used in Shakespeare's day: witness “Sir Hugh Evans,” the Welsh parson in The Merry Wives of Windsor. In the English universities there is a curious survival of this use of “Sir” for dominus, members of certain colleges, technically still “clerks,” being entered in the books with the style of “Sir” without the Christian name (e.g. “Sir Jones”).

In ordinary address the title “Sir,” like the French Monsieur, is properly applied to any man of respectability, according to circumstances. Its use in ordinary conversation, as readers of Boswell will realize, was formerly far more common than is now the case; nor did its employment imply the least sense of inferiority on the part of those who used it. The general decay of good manners that has accompanied the rise of democracy in Great Britain has, however, tended to banish its use, together with that of other convenient forms of politeness, from spoken intercourse. As an address between equals it has all but vanished from social usage, though it is still correct in addressing a stranger to call him “Sir.” In general it is now used in Great Britain as a formal style, e.g. in letters or in addressing the chairman of a meeting; it is also used in speaking to an acknowledged superior, e.g. a servant to his master, or a subaltern to his colonel. “Sir” is also the style used in addressing the king or a prince of the blood royal (the French form “Sire” is obsolete).

In the United States, on the other hand, or at least in certain parts of it, the address is still commonly used by people of all classes among themselves, no relation of inferiority or superiority being in general implied.

The feminine equivalent of the title “sir” is legally “dame” (domina); but in ordinary usage it is “lady,” thus recalling the original identity of the French sire with the English “lord.”  (W. A. P.) 

  1. Certainly not “from Cyr, κυρ, a diminutive of the Greek word κύριος” (F. W. Pixley, A History of the Baronetage, 1900, p. 208).
  2. For not very obvious reasons some baronets now object to the contracted form “Bart.,” which had become customary. See Pixley, op. cit. p. 212.
  3. Edited in 3 vols., with notes, introduction and mod. French translation by Paul Meyer for the Soc. de l'Histoire de France (Paris, 1891).
  4. “Who was of good lineage and after his father became earl.”
  5. Cf. l. 18682.
    N'entendi mie bien li sire
    Que mis sire Johan volt dire.