Historico-Sociologico-Linguistic Query

I gather from various English novels read over the years that public-school boys routinely called each other by their last names (perhaps still do), and that brothers were called (e.g.) ‘Smith major’ and ‘Smith minor’. I’ve always wondered what they did for more complex cases. Specifically:

  1. What if two unrelated boys had the same last name? Was the elder, or taller, ‘Major’ and the other ‘Minor’? I’ve taught as many as three unrelated Smiths in a class of 13 in Alabama.
  2. What did they call three or more brothers? This must have come up now and then. When the third one arrived, were the first two renumbered ‘Smith primus’ and ‘Smith secundus’ and the third called ‘Smith tertius’, like ancient Roman daughters?
  3. What did they do for twins, identical or fraternal? (When I was in graduate school, one of my friends had a pair of red-haired 5-year-old identical twin boys living next door. Since she couldn’t tell them apart and their names were Pat and Dan, she called them both ‘Pan’. They were as mischievous as their age, gender, and hair-color suggest, so it was a very suitable name.)
  4. I assume at least some of these schools are now co-ed. Has that affected the question, or did the last-name rule go out before the girls arrived?

Do any of my readers happen to know the answer to these questions?

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3 Responses to Historico-Sociologico-Linguistic Query

  1. Stuart Neilson says:

    At my Prep school it was numbers. Cholmondley-Warner I, Cholmondley-Warner II, Cholmondley-Warner III, pronounced: ‘Cholmondley-Warner three’. As far as I remember Cholmondley-Warner III stayed as ‘III’ even after ‘I’ left. At my public school although we were known by surnames if necessary given names were used to differentiate.

    In the the British Army the usual practise is to differentiate by initials, Shagnasty A, Shagnasty G. However where there are many people with the same name such as Jones, Davies and Evans in Welsh units then last 2 or 3 numbers from their service number are used. Jones 25, pronounced: ‘Jones two five’. Its not uncommon for that person to be known only by the number.

  2. Milno says:

    In my experience at a small preparatory school in Australia, the designation was reset each year so that the eldest in any one year was always ‘major’, irrespective of whether the students were related or not. Twins were major (ma)/minor (mi) but I cannot recall whether it was assigned alphabetically or based on technical age! We had one case of three with the same surname (two brothers and a cousin) – major, minor, tertius.

  3. Tom Uren says:

    I doubt whether there’s a single answer to this.

    The “public” (i.e. expensive private) schools may all look the same to the 90-odd per cent of us who attended “state” or “council” (i.e. truly public) schools, but in fact each public school is a little world of its own, and jealously guards its customs and vocabulary.

    Some schools used the “primus, secundus, tertius …” system and not “major/minor.” The ordinals seem to have been used at Fettes; and in “The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street” Helene Hanff mentions seeing “Harris major, Harris minor, Harris tertius” in a chapel register at Eton in 1971. However, older books give Eton usage as “major, minor, minimus” and (if necessary) “maximus, major, minor, minimus”, so maybe the usage changed.

    I think the general practice would be to designate the older of two boys with the same surname as “major” and the younger as “minor”, even if they were not related. The OED suggests that in some schools it was the boy who had been longer in the school who was “major”, even if he was not the older.

    I can’t find any evidence of how schools dealt with twins, or of the practice in co-educational schools, but I’m sure that the practice will vary from school to school.

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