Don't call me "Sir."

[Originally published at on 9 Feb 2010.]

I'm making a detour on the way home. I walk out of the grocery store, bag of groceries in hand, and try to put my woolen head condom (AKA "the beret") on my head one-handed. Look left, look right, cross the parking lot on a straight-line path to my car.

You're a civilian heading in for your groceries/beer and you pass awkwardly around me as I juggle my keys. "Excuse me, sir." Or perhaps, "Good evening, sir." Or worst of all, the dreaded, "Thank you for your service, sir."


Because it's an awkward moment, it's dark, and I'm due home in a few minutes to watch the Siglet while Mrs. Sig goes to her Mary Kay Kult meeting, I just mumble something appreciative-sounding at this moment, or smile, or say "thank you" and drive on.

But it bugs me. Every time. I know you are trying to be respectful, trying to be polite, trying to Support The Troops, but it's wrong on two levels, and you need to know why.

First, in my professional capacity, "Sir" is a title reserved for commissioned officers, warrant officers, any male about whose status or identity I am unsure, and civilians. We'll set aside the cynical response ("'Sir?' I work for a living.") and note that it's simply inaccurate to use on a staff sergeant or any enlisted soldier, no matter how senior. To anyone who has ever had to report to an arrogant lieutenant straight out of West Point, "Sir" reeks of pretension and unearned honors, whereas any dirty enlisted man can take pride in earing the title of "Sergeant."

(I'm only half-kidding. I know you mean well, but it's really irritating.)

But it's still appropriate if you identify that guy in uniform as an officer, right? Um. No, not really. And here's why.

I apologize for resorting to clichéd tactics, but I'm going to hit up a dictionary for this one. "Sir" is a derivative of the Middle English "Sire," circa 13th century, according to Merriam-Webster. You know. The Dark Ages. Feudalism. Nobles and knights running around the landscape, their squires banging coconuts together. Serfdom. Calling someone "sire" was an acknowledgement of their legal power over you, of your subjugation.

Can you think of something less appropriate for one American citizen to call another?

My professional capacity is service to my country by force of arms. (And coffee. Lots and lots of coffee.) The conditions under which I perform this service is such that I cannot operate as a free individual; I work in a hierarchy to maintain order and discipline so I can more effectively render the enemies of my nation unable to harm it. I joined this hierarchy and found my place within it voluntarily, without any compulsion. I accept it as a temporary, limited, and utterly necessary compromise of the American social contract. Under those conditions, in my professional capacity ("specialist in the application of violence"), there are some people that I call "sir." (With some of them, I even mean something by it.)

But outside of that professional context, I call no one "sir." When the work day ends (sometimes a year after it starts), I am an American citizen. You are an American citizen all of the time. I work for you. You don't call me "sir." You don't call anyone "sir."

You can thank me for my service. You can buy me a beer. You can show your appreciation in any of a thousand ways, and while it will probably make me a bit uncomfortable, I will try to accept it in the spirit that it's offered.

But if you really want to acknowledge who I am and what I do, know that three stripes and a rocker mean you can just say, "Good evening, Sergeant."