Peer Pressure.

David Marsh has an entertaining column in The Guardian about house style with regard to the peerage, beginning with the question: “Which of these (hypothetical, I emphasise) sentences do you think works better? Baron Hall of Birkenhead has invited The Lord Lloyd-Webber, Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho and Baron Foster of Thames Bank to star in a Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special. Tony Hall has invited Andrew Lloyd Webber, Martha Lane Fox and Norman Foster to star in a Strictly Come Dancing Christmas special.” He hopes we will agree that “while the first does have a kind of absurdist entertainment value, the second is more effective in communicating who and what we are actually talking about, which in a newspaper is quite important.” But it’s not easy. Here are a couple of paragraphs:

Our policy for several years has been that when referring to peers we call them simply Lord Emsworth, say, at first mention, and thereafter simply Emsworth. But the policy is impossible to apply consistently and credibly. Lord Hall, for example, the BBC director general, is known by one and all (except, perhaps, for a few anti-BBC headbangers on rightwing newspapers) as Tony. Referring to Lloyd Webber as Lord Lloyd-Webber (yes, he gained a hyphen along with his peerage) sounds silly, if not as silly as calling the This is Spinal Tap, writer and star Christopher Guest, by his title,”5th Baron Haden-Guest”.

A further problem is that, since the explosion in the number of life peers when Tony Blair lost his nerve halfway through reforming the House of Lords, there are so many of them – about 700. So “Lord Smith” could be any one of four people: Baron Smith of Finsbury, Baron Smith of Leigh, Baron Smith of Kelvin, or Baron Smith of Clifton.

He quotes GK Chesterton to good effect (“Journalism largely consists of saying ‘Lord Jones is Dead’ to people who never knew that Lord Jones was alive”) and comes to a sensible conclusion. I look forward to seeing what AJP (aka Lord Caper of Noreg) has to say about all this.


  1. marie-lucie says

    Yes, the first sentence was odd: why call on unknown members of the peerage to star in a show? I think the problem arises when people have a professional identity separate from their civil identity. For instance, there is a British archaeologist (known among linguists for his ideas about Indo-European origins) who signs his professional work Colin Renfrew even though he is officiallly Sir Colin Renfrew (which I think is an inherited title – I am too tired to look him up but I am sure Wikipedia has the story). When the title is bestowed as a reward (of a kind) for a successful, highly publicized professional career, as in the case of The Lord Lloyd-Webber, using the title in a newspaper or similar article hides the actual person from the public, rather than highlights the success. In the sentence above, the reference to The Lord Lloyd-Webber may causes the average reader to think I didn’t know that there was a Lord with the same name as the musician, rather than identifying the two references to a single individual.

  2. In a context like that of the first sentence, the lords, barons etc are being chosen for a performance on the strength of their professional fame as performers, etc, not as titled individuals. The titles belong to a completely different context, that of the titled upper crust, presented to the Queen, entertained at Court, and able to enjoy the perquisites and privileges of membership in a tiny minority at the top of the social scale. Where the two contexts coincide, as in a social notice, it might be appropriate to use both identities on first mention, then to go on with the one that is most relevant to the context of the journalistic piece. For instance, the first sentence (which sounds satirical) could be followed by something like : Followers of the current musical theatre scene will know these persons better as … Andrew Lloyd Webber, ….. (etc, going on to the professional reason for their presence).

  3. This is a problem that has been caused by people who are uncomfortable with being stuck with a peerage. They should not have taken the title if they couldn’t handle the consequences. There was a postwar style of newly created peers with the last name ‘Brook’ or ‘Brooke’ squishing their first & last names together, so that Gen. Sir Alan Brooke became Viscount Alanbrooke and Sir Norman Brook became Lord Normanbrook. George Brown, a Labour Foreign Secretary, perhaps not realising that -brook was a common ending for a name whereas -brown wasn’t, took the title Lord George-Brown after he was kicked out of Harold Wilson’s cabinet. Now there’s a convention that the younger sons of an earl or duke get the courtesy title of Lord Firstname Lastname, Lord David Cecil, for example, was the younger son of the Marquess of Salisbury. Brown, who was a socialist, avoided this trap by emphasis: Lord GEORGE-Brown is pronounced like Lord ALANbrooke, whereas the younger son of an earl would be LORD George BROWN. In the end, people just reverted to calling him George Brown. This was around 1970. I think he may have been the first working member of the House of Lords effectively to not use a title. Nowadays, as the article says, there are all sorts of people who turn out to be peers – Richard Rogers (Lord Rogers of Hammersmith) & Norman Foster being the architects. We architects have also got Dame Zaha Hadid, who seems not to use her new title much. Although a damehood is theoretically the female equivalent of a knighthood, it sounds a bit frumpy; rather like the pantomime dame, who is always played by a man.

  4. It reads like an story written to fill space. I don’t know Grauniad style, but there is no logical reason to write the first version in anything but the Court Circular. F’rinstance, when Hall was appointed, I didn’t know for some time he was Lord Hall because even the BBC news didn’t use his title.
    On a similar subject, I recommend Snobs by Julian Fellowes, writer of Downton Abbey. While it gets darker in the second half, the first half is laugh out loud funny about the British Aristocracy and Gentry (versus the middle class, and even the upper version), from someone who knows it intimately.

    PS. Another little moan, LH. It was nice when the comments box remembered who you were. (Oh God, some people are never satisfied …}

  5. It was nice when the comments box remembered who you were

    It still does – or rather does so for the first time, unlike with the old software – provided you allow cookies to be collocated. I noticed this recently after a whirlwind tour of naughty sites sans gateaux. Also, if you tell your browser to delete cookies when you close it, you will have been forgotten when you open it again.

  6. See, they were still off and the comment fields are now empty.

  7. I turned cookies on again before posting that last comment, and the comment fields retained my name so I could then post this comment.

  8. I try very hard to tell myself it doesn’t matter – and it doesn’t – but I still get annoyed when, eg, Lord Hall is referred to as “Lord Tony Hall” – he would, of course, only be “Lord (firstname) (surname)” if he were the younger son of a duke or marquess, like Lord Randolph Churchill and Lord Peter Wimsey.

  9. ”5th Baron Haden-Guest”


    I didn’t think Usanians were allowed to hold titles.

  10. Didn’t some people fight a war to abolish all this absurd claptrap?

    Call him John Smith or whatever. Save the rest for his obituary.

  11. @Sili

    Christopher Guest acquired his US citizenship by birth. Had he been naturalized as a US citizen, he would have been required to renounce his title (along with his British citizenship) at the time of naturalization.

  12. I can imagine it soon will be possible to staff the whole Chorus of Peers with actual peers.

  13. Scrap the whole elitist, ridiculous system of peerage.

    Problem: SOLVED.

  14. Ah-ha. It ate my faux html. Put “(angled-bracket)de_rigueur_comment_by_an_American(angled-bracket)” before and after that comment. 🙂

  15. “Renfrew was created a life peer in 1991 as Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, of Hurlet in the District of Renfrew.” So saith WKPD.

  16. marie-lucie says

    Paul, Stu: Until a few days ago the system always forgot my name and address, but now it does no longer, even though I don’t understand how “cookies” work and would be hard pressed to turn them on or off. Why would my name be remembered now, but not other people’s?

  17. marie-lucie: a “cookie” is a small amount of data that can be created and “held in” your browser when you visit a website. The browser often writes the data to a file that it keeps track of, and that may persist even after you close your browser, so “held in” is to be taken with a grain of salt. When the software at the website requests that such a file be created, the browser creates one.

    To understand what the data in such a file is good for, you need to know a certain basic fact about how browsers and servers interact (servers are what I called “website software” above). First of all, both these things are just pieces of software that interact or “communicate” by sending data to each other in a special, restricted way. When initiated by a user, his browser sends data to the server (never the other way around), and ends when data is returned by the server. Technically this is called a “request/response exchange”.

    The important thing is: without cookies the server is unaware of any relationship between exchanges, and knows nothing about the users whose browsers initiated a particular exchange. Two request/reponse exchanges, one after the other, are – as far as the server can tell – both from the same user, or from different ones. This incognito communication is a bit like buying something for cash (rather than credit card) in a store. You request the item, pay for it and receive it. Unless the cashier looks up from lacquering her nails, she will not notice whether the next person requesting an item is you again, or someone else.

    This communication protocoll is called “stateless”. “State” is anything that persists between several request/response exchanges and can be used to identify them as part of a longer communication sequence. When you want to order something through an internet site, you usually have to go through several browser exchanges – select the item [then hit Enter], enter the delivery address [then hit Enter], specify whether it is a gift [then hit Enter], enter your credit card number [then hit Enter] and so on. A cookie on your browser can be used, on each request, to identify that request as belonging to a sequence of requests. This is called a “session cookie”.

    There are cookies of different kinds used for different purposes. A session cookie allows your browser to hold comment field data after you post a comment to WordPress, and to reenter the information in the comment fields for your convenience. The browser automatically reenters the data. It is, in a sense, merely using the WordPress cookie (which apparently includes your comment field data, but may also store other information) to authorize itself to reenter (part of) that data in the comment fields.

    You ask “why would my name be remembered now, but not other people’s?” I think the reason is that different people have different browser settings regarding cookies. Each user can change these settings at will.

  18. The technical term “state” is used a lot in IT. It can be defined precisely for various contexts, but many IT people don’t really think much about the term when they use it. Most of the time, IT people who are native English speakers succeed in understanding each other when they use the term.

    The apparently harmless-but-armed-with-special-IT-implications English word “state” is usually translated in German as the equally harmless Zustand. Unfortunately, for many German IT people Zustand apparently has not yet acquired the special implications that “state” has for English speakers in an IT context. As a result, Zustand is not often used in conversations here between German-speaking programmers, and when it is used it is used in a confused, confusing way.

    There are many examples of English technical IT terms that make sense as nodes in a cloud of associated concepts, but don’t make equal sense when rendered in German as isolated nodes without the supporting semantic cloud. This is my experience, at any rate. Of course this kind of thing occurs between any pair of languages in either direction. Going from German to English, if you try to translate apparently “single” Luhmann nouns by “single” English nouns, the result is often unintelligible.

  19. Misunderstandings of this kind also occur within a language. When Grumbly Stu used to fume at statements by linguists, he did so on the basis of isolated, seemingly familiar words but without being aware of the cloud of associated knowledge that surrounded and supported them. He was operating from a Cloud of Unknowing..

  20. without following the Cloud of Unknowing rules.

  21. A general definition of state in the technical sense is ‘something that is remembered [persistence] and can be changed [mutability]’. Whether a door is open or closed is part of its state, but how big it is is not (the size is immutable), nor is who last opened it (the previous opener is not persistent).

    Of course, state is a relative term: the size of a door can be changed by a carpenter, and a door could be equipped with a fingerprint lock that records the prints of the person who last opened it. This relativity is, I think, what causes confusions over state rather than any complexity of the concept itself.

  22. marie-lucie says

    Thank you for the tutorial! I will reread it.

  23. Ah ha, it is now remembering me. My temporarily resident computer guru (AKA No. 1 son) has been setting up a new laptop for me and must have done it. Payment for housing him while moving to a new apartment ….

  24. John Cowan, I love that door metaphor.

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