Word of the day: mate

I witnessed a rather entertaining scene yesterday afternoon outside a tube station in north London. The wallet of a middle-aged man somehow managed to drop out of his back pocket as he was leaving the station, and a younger – foreign – man saw this, picked it up and tried to get the attention of the man, who was, by now, walking swiftly away from the exit. “Sir!” he called – in vain. “Sir!” The man carried on walking, totally oblivious to this polite form of address. Seeing this, and realising what the problem was, I shouted out “Oi! Mate! Yeah, you mate. Got your wallet here. You dropped it.” The man came running back at once and gratefully retrieved the dropped item.

The root of the problem for the (incredibly honest!) foreign man was the fact that the only time anyone would ever call anyone else Sir in London is during a very expensive service transaction. In fact, I can’t think of a time when I’ve ever been called Sir here in London. If I was in a restaurant and the waiter asked “Is sir ready to order?” or “Would sir care to look at the wine list?“, I think I’d start panicking about quite how much the bill was going to be! I imagine the staff in Harrods would almost certainly refer to me as Sir as well . . . whilst charging me ten pounds for my branded plastic bag!

The word mate is far more widely used – and feels much more informal and friendly, suggesting, as it does, that far less of a power gap exists between the speaker and the listener. Remember that we also talk about our friends as our mates, so I might say I’m meeting an old mate of mine for a drink tonight or We stayed with a mate of mine who lives there. If a man refers to another man – whether it’s someone he knows well or someone he’s meeting for the first time – as mate, it’s basically like saying ‘My friend’, which I know is common in lots of other languages. If you’re studying English in London, you’ll hear it  all the time. here are just a few examples I’ve heard – or said – over the weekend:

Sorry mate. After you. (said to a man carrying a small child, before letting him onto a bus first)

Yes mate. (said by a barman in a pub to a person who was waiting to order a drink)

Move up a bit, mate. (said to a stranger on the underground, to encourage him to make space for me to get onto the train)

Sorry, mate. You dropped something. (said to a stranger who’d dropped his travel card on the street)

Watch yourself, mate! (said – in quite an angry voice – by a cyclist to a stranger who had stepped out in front of him, without looking where he was going)

Hello mate. I need to go to Harringay Green Lanes. (said to a taxi driver)

After all of this, you might be wondering what other words like this are generally used here. What do women call other women? What do men call women? Or women call men? Well, as interesting as all those questions might be, they’re also questions for another day!

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  • Have you ever heard anyone use the word mate in English? If yes, when?
  • Do you have a similar word to mate in your language? Do YOU use it? When?
  • Has anyone ever called you Sir (or Madam, if you’re a woman)? If yes, when?
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22 Responses

  1. Oksana says:

    Thanks for this. Very interesting. It may be difficult to find a proper word to refer to people you don’t know. That’s why it’s very good to have such a natural word – like mate – to use. That young man is probably from India ). I was there once as a tourist and noticed that it’s common for locals to call foreigners Sir and Madam. Hope you’ll write about other words like this -women to other women, men to women ).

    • hugh dellar says:

      Glad you enjoyed this one Oksana. I agree that it’s one of the harder things to get to grips with in another language. The young lad I mentioned was actually Japanese, though! Will try to write a follow-up to this one sometime soon.

  2. Ameenah Hajeej says:

    Thank you Hugh. There are many words used in my language (dialectal Arabic) to call strangers depending on age, social and marital status. For example, we use the words “my brother/my friend” or “my sister/ Madame” to refer to strangers of the same age or a little bit older. We use “my uncle/ Monsieur” or “my aunt/Madame” for elder people. I heard that Korean has so many words too.

  3. Natalya Nechayeva says:

    Looks like I’ve heard this word used as adress in some films, may be a couple of times in some tracks for the textbooks I’m using to teach English, but I might be confusing something.
    People addressed me mostly “Madam” when I was in Britain.

  4. Olga Martinez says:

    Many thanks for the post) well, concerning your info and the comments, Sir /Madam is widely used everywhere across the world except UK)))). as travelling across Turkey and Mexico I was often referred as Madam and my husband as Sir. Looking forward to new posts to this topic!

    • hugh dellar says:

      I suspect that’s because most of your encounters were service transactions – hotels, restaurants, tours, etc. So it’s more likely that there’d be a bit of this going on as it shows respect, is seen as a mark of class in an establishment, etc. It’s a very different context to guys on the street talking to each other.

      • Olga Martinez says:

        yes, it’s true. but in communication among tourists these titles prevailed, as most of us were non-native English speakers and studied the language by books…I belive if there had been a native he would have enjoyed this “over-polite” and unnatural addresses)))

        • hugh dellar says:

          You’re probably right. With a lot of things, remove the native speaker and the problem disappears. Things like polite questions: it’s only really natives (and often then, a certain kind of native) that get bothered by their absence. Put a Russian and a Turk together and life goes on perfectly well without them.

          • Olga Martinez says:

            I mean we used words Sir/Madam because we had been taught so (at Uni/school) and didn’t possess any other more natural synonyms to use). and I guess our communication would amuse a native, the same way if someone used the address “Sudar” in Russian)) what about words “Mr/Mrs/Mr”? are they used mostly in written form with last names? if a person adress astranger in the street as “sorry, Mr, after you”. how does it sound?

          • hugh dellar says:

            Sorry MISTER sounds very odd, but then again, someone calling me MATE in a nice hotel would also sound odd. I guess this is why these things are rarely taught: they’re a bit of socio-cultural minefield and are often most easily picked up in situ when people are living somewhere.

          • Olga Martinez says:

            yeh,sort of cultural/lexical background…that’s what I really miss. you know, that word “mister” in addressing people stuck in my head after watching “Mask” starring Jim Carry,when he took a mask floating in the river as a man and shouted: “hey,Mister” and rushed to rescue him.

          • hugh dellar says:

            We do try with some of these posts to give that kind of socio-cultural edge, so hope you find more thna work for you. Thinking about it, by the way, little London street kids – like eleven-year-olds, that kind of age – might shout “Oi! Mister!” across the road to get your attention, but other than that . . .

          • Olga Martinez says:

            I got it) I’m grateful for what you are doing, your posts are a great help. have a nice snowy day,Hugh) hope the Beast from the East will soon pass by.

  5. May Knight says:

    It sounds odd to me. I may be a little behind on how language is spoken in the street currently, but a few years back I already heard it a lot, and it was used mainly in informal situations, from the original use between work colleagues or classmates, to addressing unknown people in the street, but this I’ve seen it usually between relatively young people. For me it has this informal tone in it, that makes it sound weird when addressing someone unknown.

    • hugh dellar says:

      As I hope the post makes clear, this is very specifically informal usage, and I acknowledge it’s possibly London-based and possibly class-based too. That said, it IS incredibly common here and a lot of my students here over the years have found it a very useful thing to be in possession of. It makes things like SORRY MATE and YOU OK THERE MATE and GO ON MATE. AFTER YOU and all those little politenesses with folk you don’t know smoother and – yes – more matey and friendly. Generally, at least where I’m from, conversation on the street between people who don’t know each other IS informal and chatty. Plus, in London, you have the added layers of class-based stuff with FAM and BLUD and BRUV.

      • May Knight says:

        Thank you, Hugh. It is indeed quite clear in the post. I just understood that it was something rather usual, regardless of age, gender or familiarity. It is something that I myself have encountered and had taken as a lovely trait of British politeness, but that still strikes me as odd in certain situations – we foreigners are not used to it at all, and it’s a pity, because it’s warm and welcoming. Whenever I hear it, it brings sweet memories 🙂 Also, I never specified that I was in Gloucestershire and don’t know so much about London, I guess it’s natural that it’s heard a great deal more over there, a vibrant and ever-evolving city as it is.

        • hugh dellar says:

          A German friend of mine lives in London now and when she first moved here, I remember going into a newsagent’s with her to buy cigarettes and the old guy who ran the shop calling her DARLING and SWEETHEART. She came out and said “Ooh! he called me SWEETHEART” . . . and was rather disappointed when he told her he almost certainly called every female customer that! 🙂

  6. Natalia Kashirina says:

    Thanks, Hugh! I would be very interested (in fact, it’s my student who came up with this question) – what would the equivalent address for a woman, in a similar context?

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