APART from school days, I don’t think I’ve called anyone sir. It wasn’t a word that came naturally to a university student of the 1970s. Nothing egalitarian, let alone socialist, about it. Once back then, a friend called my father ‘‘ sir’’ when I introduced them. ‘‘ A pleasure to meet you, sir,’’ he said. My father was just home from bowls on a Saturday and he gave me a wink at the first opportunity to confirm what I knew he was thinking. He never warmed to that friend.
Now I’ve only got to walk into a shop or a cafe to be slapped around the ears with half a dozen ‘‘ sirs’’. There’s a bar in Melbourne’s inner north where you can almost hear the heels snap together in unison with the s-word. ‘‘ Are you in for dinner, sir?’’ This at 5.30 on a Friday afternoon when all anyone who works for a living wants is to ease into the weekend with a favourite tipple and feel the fellowship of people who want the same.
What explains this sir outbreak? Are too many people watching Downton Abbey — sir’s natural habitat? Americans embraced the word long ago, so perhaps it is just a reflection of the internationalisation of language. Is sir a natural fit with good grooming? After all, we live in an age in which toddlers can wear designer labels and university students no longer go barefoot in summer. Is it the ‘‘ mate’’ of the aspirational classes? Or is there an age when sir applies and, worst of all, have I reached it? I’ve seen a couple of people stand up for me on the tram; I pretended not to notice and did my best to make reading my novel while holding on to an overhead bar look like a piece of cake.
Whatever the reason, I can’t help conducting my own private battle with sir. I’ve reached into my memory and recited Henry Lawson’s The Shearers across a few counters, (‘‘They call no biped lord or ‘ sir’ and tip their hat to no man’’) to people who may have never seen a sheep, let alone a shearer. I’ve yielded to the temptation of trying to explain that Australian democracy is first and foremost a democracy of manners.
I’ve described sir as ‘‘ lickspittle language’’, but only when grumpy. When I object, I usually say, ‘‘ I’m not too keen on sir.’’ Sometimes, this means the transaction doesn’t end with ‘‘ thank you, sir’’. For a small victory, I have to return to the same site frequently. When someone working there catches on, they may pass the information to their colleagues. All I’m asking for is a courteous exchange in the language of equality.
Last week I met a fast learner. When his multiple sirs evoked minimal response, he said ‘‘ Thanks pal’’ when I was leaving, so I stopped and we had a chat.