The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Peter O’Donnell

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.

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