Honorific Titles and Honourables

Ornament from the Bookman Ornaments collection from American Type Founders – Public Domain

After last week’s post on a “gentleman’s honor” and my brief mention of honorific titles, I had a reader ask exactly what such titles entailed and how were honorifics different from “honourables.”

An honorific title conveys respect and courtesy when used in addressing a person. Heck, we, in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world often use honorary academic titles, such as Honorary Professor or Honorary Fellow to indicate the person is a guest lecturer. This is often confused with honorary academic titles. A visiting professor or reader or senior lecturer or lecturer is someone who has taken time off their primary institution of employment to visit and collaborate with staff from another university. Hence, the visiting appointment is usually for a short period of time, ranging from 3 months up to 1 year. Yet, I have already strayed from my purpose in this post.

An honorific is used as a style in the grammatical third person and as a form of address in the grammatical second person. (I know for some of you this was as confusing as learning Latin, but bear with me. I will attempt to make it clearer. “After all, I spent 40 years teaching English,” she said laughingly.?

If we were speaking to Mr. Collins in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, he might be filling our ears with anti-honorifics, meaning first person forms such as “your most humble servant” or “this unworthy person” to describe himself.

The most common used honorifics are Mr., Mrs., and Miss. “Sir” and “Ma’am” replace these titles and are also considered honorifics. Other honorifics denote an occupation: Doctor, Reverend Captain, etc. Those of us (Yes, I am including myself in this category.) with higher academic degrees, can be referred to as “Doctor” also, for me have a Ph.D.

Judges are often addressed as “Your Honour/Honor” when on the bench, the plural form is “Your Honours” and the style is “His/Her Honour”. If the judge has a higher title, that may be the correct honorific to use, for example, for High Court Judges in England: “Your Lordship” or “My Lord”. Members of the U.S. Supreme Court are addressed as “Justice”.

Similarly, a monarch ranking as a king/queen or emperor and his/her consort may be addressed or referred to as “Your/His/Her Majesty”, “Their Majesties”, etc. (but there is no customary honorific accorded to a female monarch’s consort, as he is usually granted a specific style). Monarchs below kingly rank are addressed as “Your/His/Her Highness”, the exact rank being indicated by an appropriate modifier, e.g. “His Serene Highness” for a member of a princely dynasty, or “Her Grand Ducal Highness” for a member of a family that reigns over a grand duchy. Verbs with these honorifics as subject are conjugated in the third person (e.g. “you are going” vs. “Your Honour is going” or “Her Royal Highness is going”.) Protocol for monarchs and aristocrats can be very complex, with no general rule; great offence can be given by using a form that is not exactly correct. There are differences between “Your Highness” and “Your Royal Highness”; between “Princess Margaret” and “The Princess Margaret”. All these are correct, but apply to people of subtly different rank. An example of a non-obvious style is “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother”, which was an official style, but unique to one person.

In music, a distinguished conductor or virtuoso instrumentalist may be known as “Maestro.” Captain and Generals and Lieutenants and Admiral can be found as military ranks. “Esquire” in the U.S. is a title appended to the name of a lawyer, despite gender. [I will address “equire” in the U.K. below. We also might hear something similar to Madam Secretary or Your Excellency or Senator. All are honorifics. [Honorifics]

Now, on to HONOURABLE. In the United Kingdom, all sons and daughters of viscounts and baron (including the holders of life privileges) and the younger sons of earls are styled with this prefix. [Yes, that means, all my Jane Austen Fan Fiction followers, Colonel Fitzwilliam has both the honorific of “Colonel,” but he would also be “The Honourable . . . “]

NOTE: The daughters and younger sons of dukes and marquesses and the daughters of earls have the higher styled title of “Lord” or “Lady” before their first names, as in my Angel Comes to the Devil’s Keep, the younger son of the Duke of Devilfoard, whose Christian name is Harrison, is Lord Harrison or more familiarly known as Lord Harry. In that same book, the eldest son, the story’s hero, is presented his one of his father’s subsidiary titles, that of Marquess of Malvern. The style is only a courtesy, however, and on legal documents they may be described as, for instance, John Smith, Esq., commonly called The Honourable John Smith. As the wives of sons of peers share the styles of their husbands, the wives of the sons of viscounts and barons and the younger sons of earls are styled, for example, The Hon. Mrs John Smith. Likewise, the married daughters of viscounts and barons, whose husbands hold no higher title or dignity, are styled, for example, The Hon. Mrs Smith. (The Honourable)

“In 1912, King George V granted maids of honour (royal attendants) the style of the honourable for life, with precedence next after daughters of barons. [The London Gazette. 8 November 1912. p. 8201.]

The honourable is also customarily used as a form of address for most foreign nobility that is not formally recognised by the sovereign (e.g. ambassadors) when in the UK.

“Some people are entitled to the prefix by virtue of their offices. Rules exist that allow certain individuals to keep the prefix The Honourable even after retirement.

  • Judges of the High Court and other superior courts in the Commonwealth (if the judge is a knight, the style Sir John Smith is used socially instead of The Honourable Mr Justice Smith.); and
  • Members of Commonwealth executive and legislative councils (or senates) where the legislature is bicameral.

“Several corporate entities have been awarded the style by royal warrant, for example:

  • The Honourable East India Company;
  • The four Inns of Court (for example The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple)

“The style The Honourable is usually used in addressing envelopes (where it is usually abbreviated to The Hon.) and formally elsewhere, in which case Mr or Esquire are omitted. In speech, however, The Honourable John Smith is usually referred to simply as Mr John Smith.

“In the House of Commons of the United Kingdom, as in other traditionally lower houses of Parliament and other legislatures, members must as a minimum refer to each other as the honourable member or my honourable friend out of courtesy, but they are not entitled to the style in writing. Members who are ‘senior’ barristers may be called the honourable and learnèd member, serving or ex-serving members of the military the honourable and gallant member, and ordained clergy in the House the honourable and reverend member; a practice which the Modernisation Committee recommended abolished,[8] but which use has continued. When anyone is entitled to be styled Right Honourable this is used instead of honourable. [The Honourable]


“The Honourable,” Britannica.

“The Honourable,” Wikipedia

“How Honorifics Are Used in English,” ThoughtCo

What Are Honorifics? Study.com


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in American History, British history, customs and tradiitons, peerage, titles of aristocracy, tradtions and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Honorific Titles and Honourables

  1. Lois says:

    Just one quibble. At least in the U.S. a “visiting” lecturer, instructor, assistant professor, is not necessarily taking a break from another similar position, though more senior people might take a visiting position and also have a position to which to return afterward. The “visiting” title, especially at the junior levels, is often used for a person who is seeking academic work and is hired just for the limited-term appointment. Typically one accepts such a position, which is generally for one year or less, for lack of any better offers. My first two years in academia were spent at two successive one-year “visiting” positions in two different, geographically distant institutions.

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