The Name Game – Regency Style

One of the challenges of writing in the Regency era is getting the titles correct, or more specifically the terms of address. What were people called in the early nineteenth century? It is so confusing. When is our hero Lord Lastname and when is he Lord Firstname? When would he be simply called by his first name? What about his wife? His children? And what are the differences with what we are used to today?

Here is a website that tells it all: Correct Forms of Address

Bookmark this site, because it really has all the answers to any question you might have about titles and names.

The problem is, do readers, especially North American readers, understand or care about titles? Or is being correct just be too darn confusing?

Consider my hero in Scandalizing the Ton. His given name is Adrian Pomroy and in Innocence & Impropriety and The Vanishing Viscountess, Tanner, his friend from childhood, calls him “Pomroy.” In Scandalizing the Ton, however, Adrian’s father has just inherited a title from an uncle and becomes the Earl of Varcourt. Adrian is given his father’s lesser title, Viscount Cavanley, but it is a courtesy title, meaning he’s not really a viscount; he can’t sit in the House of Lords like a viscount. The real title still belongs to his father as well as his father’s new title.

Aren’t all these names confusing? Adrian Pomroy is Viscount Cavanley by courtesy and his father is Earl of Varcourt. Adrian. Pomroy. Cavanley. Varcourt. Four names connected to one person.

Wait, though, there is more to confuse.

When his father was merely a viscount, Adrian would have been called Mr. Pomroy, but when his father becomes an earl, Adrian is now Lord Cavanley. The friends who called him Pomroy will now call him Cavanley. (Except Tanner. Tanner still calls him Pomroy).

In the Regency, though, no one probably would have called him Adrian. First names were rarely used except by close family or school friends. Even spouses typically did not use first names.

In Scandalizing the Ton, my heroine, Lydia, does use Adrian’s first name soon after their meeting. Why would I deliberately choose to be incorrect?

I wanted to signal an intimacy between Lydia and Adrian and I used the terms of address to do that. It will make sense to North American readers, I think, but it really is not the way it would have been.

So my question is, what do you prefer? Accuracy or something that feels more familiar?

In the Historicals you’ve read, have you spotted mistakes in titles that bother you? Have you found the use of titles confusing? Does any of this matter to you?

This is one of those issues that I really don’t know if it matters to anyone but me!

Hey, I have a book video! Check it out on my website. Scandalizing the Ton is available now from eHarlequin and will be in bookstores in October.

I’m still working on the Unleash Your Story challenge to raise money for Cystic Fibrosis. Please consider making a small donation here.

About diane

Diane Gaston is the RITA award-winning author of Historical Romance for Harlequin Historical and Mills and Boon, with books that feature the darker side of the Regency. Formerly a mental health social worker, she is happiest now when deep in the psyches of soldiers, rakes and women who don’t always act like ladies.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.
0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Louisa Cornell
14 years ago

How funny, O Divine One! My CPs and I had a similar discussion recently in reference to my WIP – The Raven’s Heart. The hero’s brother-in-law is Alexander Tideswell, Viscount Basilwood. They have been friends since their school days. However, the hero, a mere baron, is a stickler for propriety. He is called Monticourt and he calls his BIL, Basilwood. Now the hero’s younger brother – Mr. Rhys Monticourt – calls the baron, his brother Tris (short for Tristan) and calls the viscount, Basils, short for Basilwood.

As the girls were reading my manuscript they got confused sometimes because I used Basilwood and Tideswell interchangeably and sometimes even referred to him as the viscount. SO, I went back through and changed most of the references to Basilwood. It is compounded by the fact that the heroine is a governess and HAS to refer to everyone formally so far. Although I am pretty sure if your employer kisses you senseless the time is coming when you can call him by his first name!

14 years ago

Thanks for posting this! I shared it with a friend who is writing a Regency romance novella. I also find it very very interesting myself!

Elena Greene
14 years ago

Diane, Regency purists often say married couples did not use first names and they often cite the Bennetts and the Eltons. The thing is, one can find counterexamples even in Jane Austen. In Persuasion, Anne, her sister Mary and brother-in-law Charles all use first names amongst themselves. One can find period letters in which couples use first names, so why not in speech? Mostly I think the answer is just to do what feels natural.

But it is tricky to keep all the names clear for the reader! Also, what people called each other in public situations may not be what they called each other in private. It’s like with sex, people can insist that certain techniques weren’t known during the Regency, but how can anyone prove it?

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

You were correct in part. I don’t find a problem with the brother calling the hero Tris. Siblings were the most likely to use first names.

Or Basils for Basilwood because friends often used a diminutive of the title name. This is no different than a contemporary having John’s friends call him Johnny. It is less formal.

What no one would have ever called him would be Tideswell, the real family name, not if he had a courtesy or real title to claim. But the hero’s younger brother would be Mr. Monticourt.

The heroine, a mere governess, would probably use names sparingly, but she would say, “Lord Basilwood” “Lord Monticourt” or “my lords” and Mr. Mornitcourt for the brother.

Who knows what lovers called each other? But I’m guessing they did have intimate names or use first names. Regency writers often use a switch to first names as a signal of a new closeness between heroes and heroines.

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Oops, Louisa-O-Doggie-One, I didn’t mean you were correct in part! I mean you were correct! I’d change it back, if it were me and make certain when the brother says Tris we know who he is talking to.

Lisa, I am so glad you found the “name game” interesting and that you could pass that website on to a friend. It is such an excellent resource!

I agree with you 100%.
I try to make the “name game” as simple as possible in my books, mostly by using the title name to be same as the family name, which didn’t happen often, but did happen. And I often make up a title for a hero that sounds good as a first name. I didn’t know Pomroy would become a hero, when he appeared in the earlier books, but he was offended and insisted, so the name game for him becomes more complicated. “Pomroy” did not seem like a hero name to me or my editor!

Amanda McCabe
14 years ago

Last week’s episode of “Gossip Girl” dealt with something like this. Blair’s new flame is a British lord, his stepmother is a duchess. Yet they call her “Duchess Beeton” (Beeton being the last name–the boyfriend is Lord Marcus Beeton, or something like that). Every time they said this I thought my head would explode. 🙂 They could have done 5 minutes worth of research on this, after all!!!!

I think the use of first name depends on the characters–what sort of people are they? How long have they known each other? What is the significance of when they move from “title” to “first name”?

Mallory Pickerloy
14 years ago

I saw your video the other day Diane and it was fantastic! You always look so beautiful!

I totally agree with Elena on everything. I have seen real history from the Regency, and first names are used with intimate couples, family and close freinds. And that’s the way I like to read it. As I know out in public a person was called by their title. I was also not confused at all Diane with your titles and names in your stories. I felt it was done wonderfully.

By the way I wanted to tell you that my email has been hacked into and if I sent you x-rated videos from my email and offers-it really wasn’t me! I since fixed the problem, but just in case something did come up in anyones emails, it surely wasn’t me!

Cara King
14 years ago

On something as simple and clear-cut as titles, I’m strongly in the accuracy camp, both for atmosphere and for facts (Lord Stiffneck is NOT also Lord John, and no one is *ever* Sir Smith or Sir Devonshire!!!)

Um, sorry about all those exclamation points — the cat did it. (This is the benefit of having cats — you can blame them for *everything*!)

As to atmosphere — I confess I hate it when I’m reading a Regency and everyone calls everyone else by their first names…it rips me right out of the period. (Though, like the rest of you, I’m happy to see moderate and reasonable first-name use!)

I think understanding how someone could *be* their last name or title, the way we think we *are* our first names, is a great way to open our minds and see that our ways are not the only ways (and no more natural than others)…and to me, that’s a lot of the appeal of historical (and period) fiction.


Susan Wilbanks
14 years ago

Cara speaks for me WRT errors in titles or forms of address. It’s complicated and foreign to modern American sensibilities, sure, but the correct information is readily available all over the internet. And since I’ve got a good head for trivia, I’ve pretty much memorized the system, so all those Sir Smiths and dukes being called Lord John are nails on a chalkboard for me. (I think I use the same part of my brain for how to address peers and their families that my husband uses to store Cy Young winners. He does much better than I do on the between-innings trivia quizzes at M’s games…)

I too love how the greater formality of address and stronger reliance on surnames/titles helps illustrate the different mindset of the past.

One minor challenge I’m facing in my WIP is that I have two men who become the best of friends over the course of my planned series, but they’ll never be on a first-name basis. There’s a 15-year age gap between them, and the older one is also much higher born. While the age difference matters less the older they get, and while the younger man rises in the world enough to narrow the gap between their statuses, it would still be presumptuous for the younger man to address the older by his first name. And the older man therefore shows he respects his younger friend by not treating him with a familiarity that can’t be reciprocated. The challenge is (or will be, if I ever get that far with this accursed manuscript and its hypothetical sequels!) showing their affection despite, and even through, their mutual formality.

14 years ago

Louisa, I laughed out loud and agree that if your employer kisses you senseless, you’ve earned the right to use his first name!

I’m also pulled out of the story when names are misused. There’s a certain challenge to being able to keep up with the name usages, and I feel like I’ve learned something. I don’t like having something “dumbed down” so I won’t become confused. As long as it’s clear who’s who, then I’ll pick up on the names quick enough. I’ve found books where even when they keep the names simply it’s confusing because of paragraphing (ex: dialog from two different characters in the same paragraph).

I loved Scandalizing the Ton, and noted the change in the relationship with the use of first names. It gave a feeling not unlike using darling or sweetheart. (Great video!)

PS Susan, I think the continued use of titles because of the age difference fits well. There are people I’ve known all my life and though I’m midlife, they are nearing the end of theirs, but I simply cannot call them by their first name!

Janet Mullany
14 years ago

I love the erotic implications of having so many different ways to address your lover and I’m always surprised at how few writers really take advantage of it.

The problem is, do readers, especially North American readers, understand or care about titles? Or is being correct just be too darn confusing?

Nope, our readers are smart enough, and if the writer’s world-building is strong enough, there won’t be much confusion. I’d say generally that people in the US seem to be far more interested in titles and royalty than the English themselves.

What I do find interesting tho is the assumption that men would find it difficult to change their names altho it doesn’t seem to be any problem for women!

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Mallory, so glad you liked my video! and that I haven’t confused you with names and titles in my books. I do try!

Amanda, can’t agree more about doing a little research on titles. It really is easy, especially with the Correct Forms of Address website.

Cara, I too hate to read books where everyone is calling everyone by their first names. Another pet peeve is the use of contemporary names, like Blossom or something. But that is another blog!

Susan, I think your assessment of how the two heroes will address each other is spot on! It is exactly how I’d think it would be.

Judy, thanks for the nice words about Scandalizing the Ton!

Janet, I wonder if the English are so used to titles that they don’t think of them like we do.
I did have my character have a little trouble getting used to his courtesy title, but it didn’t last long.

14 years ago

I also come down on the “accuracy in titles” side of things–and it does bug me when authors use them wrong, because (as Susan said) it’s not that hard to get them right! There are some other things like this for me as well–messing up inheritance of titles and entail; not knowing the difference between a peer and a non-peer (as in knights, baronets, and those with courtesy titles); getting military ranks wrong; thinking that one bought commissions in the Navy; etc., etc.

As to the use of first names, that only bothers me if it seems wrong in context. If a peer says “Call me John” on first meeting someone, I’d at the very least like to know if he does this to everyone and why, or if this is unusual.

Truthfully, I don’t much care for strangers calling me by my first name even nowadays when we are all madly casual. This is one habit of phone solicitors (among many) that drives me bats.


Julia Justiss
14 years ago

Hi, Diane! Getting a Regency fix (now that power is back; after Ike decimated the coast he came straight north and paid us a visit so had to camp out powerless for 2 days) before getting to work.

I guess I’m particularly sensitive on the name issue after getting blasted in an Amazon review that said my Regency characters’ names sounded like they came out of the antibellum south. Although I didn’t think the remark was warranted–grin– I did find a book that gives names popular in historic periods (Ha, just TRY to criticize me on that point again.) However, the girl that starts calling the Duke by his first name upon their first meeting does drive me nuts. One of the subtleties (sp?) of Regency is when the heroine and hero (esp if one is socially superior to the other) abandon formal titles and use first names. So yes, I like to see at least some distinction, though if carried to true period extreme, I think it would distract most readers. That said, titles should be used correctly, even if only Brit readers will catch the errors.

Susan, I think the **way** your two friends converse with each other will very effectively convey their closeness and affection, to the point that their not using first names becomes irrelevent. Partly it’s just habit; if I’ve called you “Pomroy” all my life, I’m likely to continue doing so–that’s how I know and love you and it just wouldn’t seem right to suddenly call you “Tom.”

Ah, how I love having electricity! Now it’s back to work.

Can’t wait to get my hands on Scandalizing the Ton!

Diane Gaston
14 years ago

Julia, I’m so glad Ike just took away your power and not your whole house.

I’m sure I made mistakes in titles and names in earlier books. It is a learning experience. The more you look into it, the more you realize there is to learn.

One thing that bothered me about the Beau Brummell movie (there were several things) starring James Purefoy. They had Brummell calling the Prince Regent “George” – the two of them called each other “George.” Now I just didn’t think that would happen. No way.

14 years ago

Miss Manners had a lovely column once on how forms of address could express changing relationships: the young, handsome assistant goes from calling his widowed employer “Mrs. Smith” to “Sophronia” to “Sophie, darling”, and you’ve got the story right there.

However, I don’t care for historicals when that transition takes place too quickly, as it seems unnatural somehow. I would think a young Regency miss would not feel comfortable calling a man by his first name for a considerable period of time, even if the relationship has advanced to emotional intimacy fairly quickly (must admit that relationships that advance too quickly are most definitely not my favorites, but that is a topic for another blog).

Elena Greene
14 years ago

I would think a young Regency miss would not feel comfortable calling a man by his first name for a considerable period of time

A while ago I did a quick look through Austen to see how her characters use names (in reaction to people who hold Mrs. Elton up as a model!) and I noticed that both Darcy and Captain Wentworth start using their heroines’ first names at some point in their stories. However I didn’t find a spot at which Elizabeth or Anne did the same, which goes along with what you’re saying.

But really, my favorite answer to all of these sorts of issues is “it depends”. 🙂