Personal names – an Aussie tradition

There were, obviously, class differences in the way one addressed others in those early post-war years in Australia. Mr., Mrs., and Miss (not Ms) were a feature of the way one was referred to or spoken to. I addressed my in-laws in this respectful manner. Within my extended family overseas, as with the other ethnic communities there, all elderly persons were addressed equally respectfully. For example, at a bus stop recently in Singapore, a middle-aged Chinese stranger addressed me as Uncle when she wanted to know when the next bus was to be expected.

Such courtesy has been lost in modern Australia. No one is addressed as Sir. I am forgetting my surname because no one uses it; we are all on a first-name basis. I have heard some senior citizens addressed by their first names by their grandchildren.

In the ‘olden days,’ a red-haired Aussie would be addressed by his mates as Blue; a tall fellow as Shorty, and so on. But that practice may not be prevalent today. Is this because so many colourful names and phrases have been lost through the Anglo-Aussie having to mix at work and at leisure with foreigners struggling with the English language, especially with the Aussie accents and pronunciations? In any event, the language, its colloquialisms and accents do change insidiously over time. We now tend increasingly to speak t.v. American.

The pasteurisation of our language (which involves some of the cream being removed) has led to a unisex approach to personal names, as well as to a de-culturalisation. Taking the latter first: when I responded to a business letter signed Ali, I did not find an Islamic man, but a woman whose first name was Alison. Then, there was Alex who had a nice feminine voice and manner. When I asked her why she chose to down-play an attractive name like Alexia, she agreed that she might retain her original name.

But, why are these people using their first names? A personal touch, or camouflage, or just a new practice? And why do some women use shortened names which are traditionally men’s names (like Ali and Alex)?

Then there is the new practice (copied from America?) of having surnames with 4 to 5 letters only, thus destroying any link to cultural heritage. Miniaturisation can be de-tribalisation.