What is an Honorific?

Mary McMahon

An honorific is an affix, a term which precedes someone's name in conversation, which is designed to confer honor and respect on the individual in question, as well as to define him or her. Honorifics vary widely, from a simple “Mrs.” when referring to a married woman to “His Holiness” when discussing the Pope. Honorifics which relate to religious offices and royalty are sometimes known as styles of office.

Referring to the Pope as “His Holiness” is an example of an honorific.
Referring to the Pope as “His Holiness” is an example of an honorific.

The use of honorifics varies from culture to culture. As a general rule, honorifics are always used in formal situations, unless someone specifically requests that an honorific not be used. For example, someone meeting the parents of a friend would address them as Mr. and Mrs. Lastname, unless they invited that person to be less formal. People are often taught from an early age that it is better to err on the side of formality than to cause offense by being too casual.

Referring to a married couple as "Mr. and Mrs." is an honorific.
Referring to a married couple as "Mr. and Mrs." is an honorific.

In some cultures, the use of honorifics is more widespread, and it can get very complicated. In Japan and some other Asian cultures, for example, honorifics are used on a daily basis, and people are expected to use the right form when addressing someone. Many languages even have honorifics built into them: French speakers, for example, can choose between the formal vous and the more casual tu when saying “you.”

Honorifics may refer to a profession, such as "Doctor."
Honorifics may refer to a profession, such as "Doctor."

Some honorifics refer to a profession, as in the case of honorifics like Chef, Doctor, Professor, Coach, or Teacher. Many professions have very specific honorifics: judges, senators, priests, presidents, and dignitaries, for example, all have very specific styles of office, like “The Right Reverend” and “Your Honor” which are used in all written correspondence and in spoken conversation unless people are directed otherwise.

Honorifics may refer to a profession, such as "Chef."
Honorifics may refer to a profession, such as "Chef."

Honorifics are also used to describe class and social status. A Queen, for example, might be referred to as Her Imperial Highness, and various styles of office are used to describe other royalty. At times, the use of search terms can come into dispute, especially in the case of marriages between social classes. A single woman is often referred to as Ms. or Ma'am, while a man would be addressed by the honorific of Mr. or Sir.

Honorifics may refer to a profession, such as "Coach."
Honorifics may refer to a profession, such as "Coach."

As a general rule, it is possible to pick up the correct honorific to use for someone from conversation and the people around him or her. Since most people meet dignitaries and members of royal families under controlled circumstances, it is highly probable that they will know which honorific to use, but if in doubt, it is a good idea to ask.

Referring to a judge as "Your Honor" is an example of an honorific.
Referring to a judge as "Your Honor" is an example of an honorific.
Referring to a priest as "Father" is an example of an honorific.
Referring to a priest as "Father" is an example of an honorific.
Presidents have very specific honorifics.
Presidents have very specific honorifics.
Referring to a teacher as "Professor" is an honorific.
Referring to a teacher as "Professor" is an honorific.

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Discussion Comments

anon218200

In what year was mrs. used for identifying a married woman? Would Mrs. or Mistress be used to address a woman in the 1770s? Or would they be known as the wife of Mr. or Master Seymour?

anon144174

When to use 'Ms' and 'Mrs'? I would like to know the exact usage of the mentioned honorifics! Help me please.

anon26003

What about double honorifics, especially in journalism? I constantly hear thing like "Surgeon Doctor Sam Jones" or Army Spokesman Captain Fred Smith". Isn't "Captain Fred Smith, an Army Spokesman" the correct form?

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