The phrase refers to putting a prefix such as Mr., Ms., Dr., professor, or whatever in front of one’s name. There was an interesting debate occasioned by an old clip of author Maya Angelou upbraiding a young person who called her just ‘Maya’.
“I’m not ‘Maya.’ I’m 62 years old. I have lived so long and tried so hard that a young woman like you, or any other, you have no license to come up to me and call me by my first name. That’s first,” she said to claps from the audience. “Also, because at the same time, I am your mother, I am your auntie, I’m your teacher, I’m your professor. You see?”
Angelou, who was black, apologized later in the show to her questioner, also black.
Where one stands on this issue depends on many factors. If one has been part of a marginalized group, then other people not using a ‘handle’ can be a sign of disrespect, and civil right pioneers like Mary Hamilton fought for its use in courts, in a celebrated case that is now often referred to simply as the ‘Miss Mary’ case.
The reaction to the clip of Angelou upbraiding the young woman tended to split along generational lines, with younger people being more critical of her.
Pierre Phipps, who tweeted the snippet, has heard from all sides since then and said opinions are varied and plentiful. After his March 14 tweet sent Angelou’s name trending on Twitter, Phipps said the Kim in the clip reached out.
“Her response threw me off. It was a little awkward for me, but at the same time it was like, oh my God this is Maya Angelou,” [Kim] Watts said. “I remember feeling like, oh my gosh I insulted one of my icons, a person I look up to.”
“They think Miss Angelou’s response was very elitist. They were really, really pissed about it,” said Phipps, who lives in Los Angeles and writes for television. “We’re living in progressive times and a lot of people said once they turn 18, they feel like they have an even platform no matter how old you are. History is no longer playing a part in how we go about our everyday lives. History is becoming history.”
Phipps grew up in Chicago, but he has plenty of older female relatives from the South, including Mississippi and Alabama.
“It’s an unwritten rule on respect for elders in which a lot of us were born and raised to ‘put a handle on it,’” he said. “Me personally, coming from a strong black Southern family, I didn’t see anything wrong with her response. Everyone is raised differently.”
In Sri Lanka, it would be considered somewhat rude for young people to refer to people of their parents’ generation or older by their first names. They are always given a ‘handle’. In the special case of people who are friends of your parents or the parents of your friends, the honorary title of uncle or aunt is conferred on them to reflect the closer relationship, without going so far as assuming that you are on a par with them.
I tend to refer to people formally unless there are clear indications that an informal first name is acceptable. Conversely, I accept people addressing me informally or formally, leaving it up to them to use whatever they are comfortable with.