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THE WORD

Guys and dolls

SIR JAGGER, DAME MIRREN, Lady Heather Mills McCartney -- what's amiss in this list? The form of those titles, that's what: Though they've all appeared in print recently, not one is correct. And if Her Majesty the Queen is going to keep handing out honors to celebrities, then fans and journalists really ought to know knight from wrong.

 

Addressing the knights and dames should be fairly simple. The men are Sir Mick and Sir Paul and Sir Elton, not because they think it's all a lark (though they may), but because "Sir Firstname" is the proper short form. (Around the table at Camelot, you never heard Sir Lancelot referred to as Sir du Lac.)

The dames' names are handled the same way: As the legendary soprano Joan Sutherland told a class in San Francisco several years ago, "It's Dame Joan -- there is no Dame Sutherland." Helen Mirren, star of "Prime Suspect" and the new "Calendar Girls," is Dame Helen on second reference, as her compatriot Judi Dench is Dame Judi.

The wives of knights, on the other hand, are simply Lady Hislastname -- except for Lady McCartney, as she became upon marriage to Sir Paul. She insists that she is Lady Heather Mills McCartney, not having grasped that her given name doesn't belong in her new courtesy title -- though Lady Mills McCartney would probably pass muster these days.

Most of this should be irrelevant to US journalists, since newspapers nowadays are sparing with courtesy titles of any sort, and most pop entertainers don't expect their honorifics to show up in reviews. But when the odd British title comes across the copy desk, editors need to know the score: Last August, as reader Michael Short noted in an e-mail, an AP obituary of Sir Wilfred Thesiger, the renowned African explorer, erroneously called him Sir Thesiger -- a mistake that should have been intercepted.

Further than this we probably should not venture: The English have had centuries to complicate their royal, noble, and lesser titles, and they've used that time to the fullest. Diana, Princess of Wales, was the scourge of the copy editors (all half-dozen of them) who knew that "Princess Diana," though universal, was a non-title. "The wife of the Prince of Wales is The Princess of Wales," says the government's official rulebook. "The wife of Prince Charles, the former Lady Diana Spencer, should always be referred to as such, never as `Princess Diana."'

The rules changed weirdly after the Waleses' divorce: Lady Di was no longer a princess, but she could still use "Princess of Wales" after her name. No wonder the press, Brits as well as ignorant colonials, threw propriety out the window and opted for "Princess Di." Even Debrett's, the centuries-old guide to the aristocracy, breaks down and calls her "Princess Diana" on its website.

The system is endlessly mysterious: A baronet's wife, like a knight's, is Lady Lastname, but the daughter of an earl (a far, far better thing), such as Lady Diana or Trollope's Lady Glencora Palliser, is Lady Firstname. Upward nobility can wreak havoc: When her husband accedes to a dukedom, Lady Glencora loses her name; she's now just Your Grace or Duchess. As for their son, who's suddenly Silverbridge -- well, never mind. The Founding Fathers did us a great favor by abjuring a titled aristocracy; we can be thankful that the occasional Sir Mick is as bad as it gets.

. . .

NOR' BY NOR'EAST? The snow kept coming, and so did the mail, during the region's recent storms: The Globe doesn't (wittingly) use nor'easter for a disturbance blowing from the northeast, but in other newspapers, and especially among TV weatherpeople, it's common. How, asked reader Bill La Pointe, did this "bogus term" gain acceptance?

It's not, after all, a regional pronunciation, as many journalists outside New England now believe. "I grew up on Cape Cod when there still existed a pronounced local accent," wrote George Hand. "The word -- spelled phonetically -- was nawtheastah." Sailors disclaim it, too: They may say sou'wester, but never nor'easter.

The facts, however, have not slowed the advance of nor'easter: Even in print, where it's probably less common than in speech, it has practically routed northeaster in the past quarter-century or so. From 1975 to 1980, journalists used the nor'easter spelling only once in five mentions of such storms; in the past year, more than 80 percent of northeasters were spelled nor'easter. It's no more authentic than "nucular" for nuclear or "bicep" for biceps, but it would take a mighty wind, at this point, to blow nor'easter back into oblivion.

E-mail freeman@globe.com. For a month's worth of The Word, visit www.boston.com/ideas/freeman.

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