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!
- 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?