Monday, October 02, 2006


Forms of Address

Anu Garg, A.Word.A.Day (Oct. 2, 2006, abecedarian):
Millions around the globe will celebrate World Teachers' Day on October 5. Growing up in India, I came to regard my teachers with the highest respect. Kabir, a mystic poet in 15th century India, wrote in one of his couplets (in Hindi),
"Guru Govind dou khade, kaake laagoon paye
Balihari guru aapki, Govind diyo milaye."
I face both God and my guru. Who should I bow to first?
I first bow to my guru because he's the one who showed me the path to God.
The word guru is from Sanskrit via Hindi where its literal meaning is venerable or weighty. Ultimately the word is derived from the same Indo-European root that gave us the word gravity.

When I came to the US to attend graduate school, I was horrified to hear students addressing the professors by their names, even first names. Eventually, I persuaded myself to call my professors Dr. White or Dr. Kennedy but I could never address them Lee or Miles.
In other cultures pupils were once expected to show respect in a similar way, as the following examples show.

In Plautus' Bacchides, when the pedagogue Lydus discovers that his pupil Pistoclerus has been paying court to a prostitute, the following quarrel ensues (132-138):
LY. Now you've ruined me, yourself, and my effort.
To no avail did I often point out to you the correct way.
PI. I wasted my effort in the same place you wasted yours:
Your teaching is of no use to me or to you.
LY. O stubborn heart! PI. You annoy me.
Keep quiet and follow me, Lydus. LY. Just look,
Now he doesn't call me "pedagogue", but "Lydus".
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, I (The Book of Knowledge), Study of the Torah 5.5, translated by M. Hyamson (Jerusalem, 1965), p. 62 a:
A disciple is forbidden to call his teacher by name, even when the latter is not present. This rule only applies if the name is unusual, so that anyone hearing it knows who is meant. In his presence, the pupil must never mention his teacher's name, even if he desires to call another person who bears the same name; the same is the rule with his father's name.
M. Aberbach, "The Relations between Master and Disciple in the Talmudic Age," in Essays Presented to Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday (London, 1967), pp. 1-24, puts the prohibition on naming in a wider context. Apparently this prohibition on naming has survived until modern times. According to H.M. Rabinowicz, Hasidim: The Movement and Its Masters (London, 1988), p. 125, the appellation "Holy Jew" (Yehudi HaKadosh) may have been given to Rabbi Jacob Isaac (1765-1814) of Przysucha because his master, the Seer of Lublin, was also Rabbi Jacob Isaac (1745-1814) and "rabbinic ruling forbids a disciple to call himself by the same name as his teacher". Rabinowicz (p. 413, n. 1) refers to that part of the Shulhan Arukh known as Yoreh De'ah, ccxlii, 15.

For more on this topic see my paper on Names and Titles in Forms of Address.

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