Last evening, I received a WhatsApp message in my school alumni group which stated that the word ‘Sir’ is a short form of ‘Slave I Remain’ and asked everyone not to use the word. I wrote a simple reply stating that it’s not true. As a person, who used to study etymology of words thanks to Merriam-Webster’s Book of Word Histories and British Council Library, I know the origin of the word is different from what was mentioned in the message. The word ‘sir’ can be traced to late 13th century; ‘Sir’ derived from ‘Sire’ and developed alongside ‘Seigneur’ which was also used to address a feudal lord. In English the word was used as a title of honor especially a baronet and later used to refer all honorific people. The word later became a title and used with complete name ‘Sir Alexander Fleming’ etc. Probably the originator of WhatsApp message thought ‘Sir’ meant the master-serf relationship. You can read more on sir on wikipedia here.
In India, the ‘Sir’ title was awarded during British Raj to eminent personalities (Sir C V Raman, Sir Homi Modi etc). We used to wonder in school, if Sunil Gavaskar (our first cricket hero) would be awarded ‘Sir’ just like Sir Donald Bradman and Sir Garfield Sobers, but later understood that Indians were not awarded the title after India became a republic. The title is still awarded in other commonwealth countries; for e.g. Sir Vivian Richards.
Though the word is used in all commonwealth countries, I have not seen the usage as much as it is in India especially the South India. In the north of Vindyas, the word ‘saab’ derived from ‘sahib’ or ‘saheb’ is used more commonly.
The word ‘Sir’ or ‘Saar’ as it’s in pronounced in my native state Tamil Nadu, is used every minute and for all forms of addresses. Here everyone calls everyone else sir or more precisely ‘saar’. The shopkeep will address you ‘saar’; the students address teachers ‘sir’. It actually is funny; in our schooldays we used to address male teacher as ‘sir’ and the female teacher, just ‘teacher.’ Those who have read my blog Two Great Teachers would have seen that I addressed Mrs. Santha – the female teacher, as ‘Teacher’ and Mr. Apollos David, the male teacher as ‘sir.’ The present generation address the female teacher as ‘Mam’ which was not in vogue in our schooldays.
I used to be based in Udumalaipettai, a small town near Coimbatore in the late eighties and stayed in a lodge; and few of the lodge mates became close to me. But we addressed everyone as ‘saar.’ When someone referred you or someone else to others in the group, it was always, ‘Ramesh saar said this’ or ‘Sankar saar told me that’ but never Ramesh or Sankar not even Mr. Ramesh or Mr. Sankar.
That Tamil Nadu has taken ‘saar’ to extremes is an understatement. The neighbours address each other as ‘saar’. The house owner calls the tenant ‘saar’ and vice versa. So from your maid servant to neighborhood shop keeper everyone calls you ‘saar.’ Of course, in the corporate world, all are ‘saar.’ Colleagues address each other as ‘saar’ – ‘Murali Saar can we go for lunch?’ And the irony is ‘saar’ is appended to even the designation or position. Ridiculous as it may look to readers this is how it happens. The attendant would tell you that ‘CFO saar wants to see you’ or ‘CGM-O saar is calling you’ (CFO – Chief Financial Officer and CGM-O, Chief General Managers – Operations) and never just name or for that matter the position. Our obsession with job titles merits a separate blog if not a book. The word is used in different ways, ‘saar’ when normally addressing others, ‘NO Saaar’ (with more emphasis on ‘a’) for an apology and ‘no sar’ for an angry retort, shortening the length of the syllable ‘a.’
Of course with MNCs coming to India in large numbers in the 1990s, the usage of word ‘sir’ has come down in the corporate world and it’s seriously discouraged. Even before the advent of MNCs, in some big corporates like ITC, the usage of the word was strictly prohibited; the young management trainee would address the CEO by first name, but that used to be rare. I struggled throughout my career to make my colleagues call me by name. I am sure, today, in most of the technology and other service companies, people are on first name basis.
On the other hand, the usage of the word ‘saar’ has become even more widespread in Tamil Nadu. In the olden days, if you go down south from Chennai or Madras, at least in small towns and villages you would hear the words like ‘Annachi (அண்ணாச்சி)- elder brother, or Periyavare (பெரியவரே) – the wise man, etc. for addressing people. ‘Saar,’ now, has replaced most of these addresses.
So when do you become ‘saar?’ I believe as soon as you graduate and enter the job market (or don’t graduate but still enter the job market) you become ‘saar’ to someone. And it stays till you breath your last. We always saw everyone calling my father ‘saar’ except a few close colleagues who called him uncle. They called him ‘saar’ even after his retirement. So the ‘saar’ to an extent is not for addressing someone who is your boss. When I sat down to write this blog, I asked my brother how often the word is used in his office (in a big city in Tamil Nadu), he replied, “every minute.” Mind you, this is a very forward looking and a big organization. He is not able to change this even after a ten year fight.
Like the thousands of words, the English language has adopted from other languages, I think, we should consider ‘saar’ is now part of Tamil language vocabulary. Yes we should discourage form using the word in the corporate environment but it can be used in other situations mentioned in the blog. The word ‘saar’ coveys respect with a tinge of affection and should stay.