Saturday, December 04, 2004

A weakness for titles

A weakness for titles

Updated 02:18am (Mla time) Dec 04, 2004
By Isagani Cruz
Inquirer News Service

Editor's Note: Published on page A14 of the December 4, 2004 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer

ONE of the character flaws of the Filipino is his weakness for titles. Everyone must have a title or honorific to distinguish him from others. This is not true only among the so-called elite or the professional class. In fact, this passion begins with the family and goes upward in society to separate the distinguished from the common herd.

In the rural areas, we still have the "kuya" or the "ate" as the eldest and therefore the head of the siblings. These may be varied with the "manong" or the "manang" or similar appellations depending on the locality or the dialect. In the old or traditional families, even the next in rank is similarly honored although in less degree. Thus we have the "diko" and the "ditse," following the older brother or sister. The "bunso" may be the last-born among the children but is the favorite in the family.

My mother was called ‘Ñora Aurora and my uncle ‘Ñor Pablo by their younger cousins. (The contractions were of Señora and Señor.) The oldest in the clan was called "Apo" or "Lakay," which betokened the highest respect and even veneration. Beginning with the Spanish regime, the rich man was deferred to as Don and of course his wife expected to be called Doña. They were the principal figures in the hacienda.

The "Don" used to be limited to the very rich individuals or to the very prestigious political or cultural leader like Don Vicente Madrigal and Senator Recto, whom everybody called Don Claro. Others with more pretensions than prestige have usurped the title solely on the strength of their wealth acquired through trade and not inheritance. A business tycoon used to answer to the title of Don but now prefers to be called Doctor because of a degree he obtained honoris causa.

In our snobbish society, Mang Tomas and Aling Senyang now feel reduced when addressed in this humble fashion. Even Mr. and Mrs. are no longer generally used when the person is a professional and must be titled by his career. The woman may not have finished anything but is fawned upon with the title of Madame although this may have an exciting connotation in some risqué circles. This presumptuous title is pejorative in the democratic ambience but not when used for Imelda during the dictatorship. It was intended as obsequious flattery.

I read somewhere that in Europe the only persons who can use their titles before their names are the doctor and the professor. I don't know if this is still true today, but I don't see why not. In trials before American courts, the judge addresses counsel as Mr. Black or Miss White and not Atty. Bueno or Atty. Diablo as in Philippine trials. Even our Supreme Court addresses the lawyer as "Attorney" and not plain "Mister" as if he were a lowly employee. Calling him "Mister" may suggest that he has been disbarred.

Other professionals have followed suit to proclaim that they are careerists and not ordinary persons without a college diploma or a license to practice. Thus, they identify themselves as Engineer Fuente or Architect Cuarto although not as Veterinarian but as Dr. Perrogato. Before long, we may also have other practitioners as Barbero Barbacerrado, Tubero Aguas and Sastre Pantalones. Their customers will no longer be known by that common term but will now be dignified as "clients," which used to be associated only with the lawyer like the "pacientes" of the doctor.

These titles are even used now in the obituaries as if the deceased plan to continue working in the other world. Their relatives evidently do not believe that death is the ultimate leveler but still observes the caste system even in the afterlife. Lawyers obviously cannot practice in heaven because there will be no disputes or crimes there, so they will have to work only you-know-where, which will be a familiar venue.

Some titles are preceded by the "ex" to inform the public that the holder has retired or left office. I don't use the prefix because my title of Justice is permanent like President and General. You don't say ex-President Quezon or ex-General Lim even if they have long since retired. And I don't write (Ret.) after my name because people might think it means "Retarded."

And now let us talk of the widely used and often misused "Honorable." It is a respectful but not often a truthful description of the addressee and might in fact be meant as sarcasm or mockery or plain insult. It is employed for high government officials like the president in this country or members of the royalty in monarchial states. We also use it to address members of Congress (no doubt for their pristine honesty) and now, even the chair of the barangay who is the supreme head of his little turf. Generals, including those suspected of plunder, also expect to be addressed as "Honorable."

Things could be simpler and less pompous if everybody could be called Mr. or Mrs. or Mang Juan or Aling Maria with no prefixes or suffixes to adorn their names. This way, the police cannot distinguish between the High and Mighty and the lowly citizen with no title to impress or intimidate. Both of them can be validly arrested, for murder or jaywalking, without discrimination or preference.


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