To ‘Sir,’ with reservations


The Oxford dictionary defines the respectful appellation of ‘Sir’ as follows, ‘used as a polite way of addressing a man whose name you do not know, for example in a store or restaurant, or to show respect viz., Good morning, Sir.’ The operative phrase here is ‘way of addressing a man.’ From the time we were toddlers in school, we have grown accustomed to addressing male teachers or masters as ‘Sir,’ while lady teachers were invariably referred to as ‘Miss,’ irrespective of their marital status. Now, why am I at pains to belabour this rather obvious point? The reasons are not far to seek. My newspaper this morning carried an arresting headline, ‘Woman or man, address judge as “Sir.”’ This confusing instruction was given by the Chief Justice of the Gujarat High Court.

Reportedly, the hoary, old subject of whether judges should be addressed with the deferential, some may even say obsequious, British-era-hangover ‘My lord’ or ‘Your Honour’ was resurrected in the Gujarat High Court, presided over by a lady Chief Justice. The honourable lady passed a verdict in favour of ‘Sir’ as a gender-neutral alternative. The vexed question of what is the proper way of addressing judges of either gender has been raised in earlier years, but there has been no clear-cut direction such that lawyers or the accused can find themselves on safe ground when they clear their throats to address their Lords or Ladyships. I can hardly say ‘to address their Sirs,’ which quite frankly, sounds ludicrous.

You see my quandary here, readers? The problem arose in the first place because a lawyer, addressing a division bench comprising a lady and a gentleman judge, decided that discretion is the better part of valour, took the chivalrous approach and addressed both of them collectively as ‘Your Ladyship.’ It is my guess that that was what he naively intended to do, though the chagrined judges took the view that he was addressing only the distaff member of the bench, and was peremptorily told, if not actually reprimanded that he should be acknowledging both of them and not just the lady judge. In short, the unfortunate lawyer found himself between a rock and a hard place.

Thus chastised, the lawyer meekly apologised, lest he should be found in contempt. At which point, in order to put this issue to bed once and for all, as the debate over terminology issues was eating into precious time of court proceedings, the judges declared that ‘Sir’ would be an acceptable and gender-neutral way of addressing their Honours. In order to arrive at this facile conclusion the judges, as is the way with judges (and with lawyers and solicitors), proceeded to quote several precedents drawn from past learned judges to buttress their case and declared their verdict. ‘Sir’ it is and ‘Sir’ it shall be. Case closed.

Some interested, or even disinterested third party do-gooder could contemplate approaching the Supreme Court and seek the opinion of their Lords or Ladyships or Sirs as to how they felt about the whole rigmarole. However, our courts are already at bursting point and facing considerable pressure to hear important cases expeditiously and will not look kindly upon being asked to pass judgements over what they will doubtless regard a trivial matter.

Let me now declare, straight off the bat, that I feel a great sense of unease over the Gujarat High Court’s view on how judges ought to be addressed. While I have no wish to bring back practices that would smack of our colonial past, I have to say that this decision could have unintended consequences for the larger sphere of general discourse. The way I see it is that, if judges wish to become neutral-genders (sounds weirder every time I utter it) and have no issues with being addressed by a ‘one-size-fits-all’ appellation of ‘Sir,’ that is their business and good luck to them. However, one should also have some consideration for the wider Indian populace, or ‘the great unwashed’ as somebody (perhaps a judge) once described them.

For decades now, we the people of India have grown accustomed, thanks to Bollywood, Tollywood and all other filmy ‘woods’ regaling us with emotionally charged scenes of Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan and Sivaji Ganesan addressing our wigged sentinels of jurisprudence dramatically with a thunderous ‘Objection, My Lord.’ Are we going to be denied such heightened histrionics with a lame ‘Objection Sir’? In any case, I cannot get my head round the prospect of having to address a lady judge as ‘Sir.’ My English teacher in school, Mrs. Scott, would have administered ‘one hit on the back of the head’ if I called her ‘Sir.’ Just not cricket, Your Honour. To think that a lady Chief Justice has actually suggested this is all the more befuddling.

Writers sometimes face a unique problem when referring to a person in the abstract (gender-neutral), and choose to be politically correct by writing ‘she’ or ‘her,’ only to lapse reflexively later on into ‘he’ and ‘him.’ As in, ‘a person is expected to be resourceful if he seeks to be successful.’ Why could that not have been a ‘she’? Or, if you wish to hedge your bets, you could say ‘he or she,’ which over several sentences and paragraphs, can get tiresome. Old habits die hard.

If I were to do a quick sketch for a short one-act play dealing with judicial nomenclatures, it would go something like this.

Defence Counsel – ‘Your Worship, my client is innocent of all charges levelled against him. The prosecution has failed to provide any substantive evidence. I humbly request your Lordships to dismiss this farcical case. With costs. Thank you, Your Honour.’

Male Judge – ‘I would strongly urge Defence Counsel to make up his mind whether to address the bench as “Worship” or “Lordship.” We cannot entertain both.’

Lady Judge – ‘Counsel also added “Honour” for good measure. In my view, none of these terms is suitable. With due apologies to my learned colleague. Why call us “Worship?” We are not Gods.’

Defence Counsel – ‘No? Not Gods? You could have fooled me your… your… your… Sirs? You see how tame that sounds? On your banging of the gavel and pronouncing “Guilty” or “Not Guilty” depends the future of so many undertrials. In a sense, you are Gods and rightly worshipped. Not unlike doctors and surgeons.’

Male Judge – ‘What is wrong with “Sir?” It is respectful and as my colleague keeps reminding us, it is gender-neutral. What is your problem with “Sir?”

Defence Counsel – “Hardly gender-neutral. With due respect Sir, to address a lady as “Sir” is both conventionally, technically and grammatically wrong. An abomination. The term gender-neutral also, unfortunately, brings to mind people of an indeterminate sexual orientation. If you are against terms like “Lordship, Worship, Honour” etc., then we have no option but to address a lady judge as “Madam.” In school we used to call them “Miss” but that will not be appropriate here in court.’

Lady Judge (stage whispers to her male colleague) – ‘I should hope not. I did not come prepared for a tutorial on terminologies and court etiquette. Not from this chit of a lawyer, at any rate. Can we get on with the case and forget about how we are addressed for the moment? We can meet separately with our other colleagues and issue a set of instructions approved by the Supreme Court on this matter. Yes, Sir?’

Male Judge – ‘Yes Sir. I mean, Yes Madam. Oh, what the hell! Even I am dithering. Let us deliver a verdict and be done with it. I have had it up to here with name calling.’

You see what is happening here, readers? Confusion confounded. We may have noble thoughts in wishing to gradually divest ourselves of painful reminders of our British colonial past, but in trying to set things right in a hurry, we could be digging a bigger hole for ourselves. Even ‘Sir’ is still an English word and, for the most part, court proceedings are still conducted in English. It would be better if our legal luminaries bent their minds to the expeditious disposal of cases, (the ever-growing pending litigations are as long as several arms), rather than getting hopelessly mired in how they should be addressed. ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged,’ say I. A smidgen of humour won’t hurt. Your average denizen on the street cannot fathom what all the fuss is about, ‘I don’t understand why judges get paid so much. Others judge me for free.’

I guess what I am striving to say is that, there are more bizarre pronouncements we have received from judges than an obsession with how they should be addressed. Personally, my favourite, laugh-out-loud, throwaway line from the bench occurs in a brilliant satirical sketch by the late comedian Peter Cook, portraying a judge. During his summing up, he winds up his long peroration with this sage advice to the jury, ‘You will now retire and carefully consider your verdict of “Not Guilty!”’

Now that is something for their Lordships, Ladyships, Right Honourables, Worships and Sirs to mull over. After all, what’s in a name?

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

Join the Conversation


  1. The IPS have got around the issue by addressing senior women officers as “Madam, Sir”. I picked it up from Delhi Crime, the TV mini series. At first it sounded odd and amusing, but now it makes perfect sense. Nice piece, Suresh.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Did you know Delhi Crime was made by Toronto-boy Ritchie Mehta? Wish he’d make a few more to keep the series alive.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. “Madam, Sir” is interesting. Perhaps the stress could be different. Mad-am Sir.

      As to who is mad, the person addressed or the addressor, is a moot point.

      I gather in the Isle of Man an oik is an officer, an official. Oik has come to mean something else derogatory but perhaps officials should be oiks as we pay their salaries and would keep them from getting above themselves.


  2. A delicate matter which deserves careful consideration. Perhaps it can be raised in the Rajya Sabha, which, considering their recent diktats to the judiciary, and even having a retired CJI as a member, may be a more suitable forum?


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: