Names and Appellations

In 1983 I was in the office of one of my very early bosses, Tony Hawkins, who asked me, 'what are you going to call yourself?' I said, 'Oh I don't mind, Phil or Philip.' Tony said, 'no, you need to decide because that's what people will call you.' I said, 'OK, Phil, it is.' And from that day onwards I have never called myself anything else.

Every business card I've ever had, every colleague I've ever had, everyone I've ever met in any walk of life since that day in 1983 has only ever known me as Phil — including my wife and immediate family. My bank account pre-dates that 1983 meeting and so is in the name of Philip but I have since changed my signature to something that looks slightly more like Phil than Philip and the credit cards I've taken out since then are in the name of Phil.

Basically, you have to have known me at school to know me as anything else — and there I was normally called Archie (by Lloydy, Speedy, Gibbo etc.) Only where I need to match what I write to what's in my passport do I ever use the name Philip.

And I'm not alone. Who's ever heard of Michael Wogan or Jeremy Ashdown (Terry is the short form of Michael Wogan's middle name, Paddy doesn't appear anywhere in Lord Ashdown's full name).

Just because a name doesn't match whatever is on that person's birth certificate or passport, it doesn't mean it's not their name. These aren't nick names, or familiar names, they are the names by which individuals are known. In the majority of contexts, the use of any other name is simply wrong.

Now mix in the modern convention of addressing everyone, even people you don't know, by their given name. When people who have never met me send me e-mail they usually, rightly, address me as Phil. Occasionally I get e-mail addressed to Mr Archer but, well, that's a pretty good indication that it's spam. A few years back I was in touch with a conference organiser in Delhi who addressed me as 'honoured sir' — I almost framed that (oi, you! would be more appropriate).

So how do you address someone who uses a short version of their name but to whom you wish to show respect or otherwise recognise that you don't actually know them?

My suggestion is to look at their e-mail address if it's available. It's obvious from this Web site and my e-mail address that my name is Phil and not Philip. Tim Berners-Lee's e-mail address makes it equally plain that his name is Tim and not Timothy. If someone's e-mail address is then she's probably a Susan, not a Sue.

But it doesn't always work.

Recently at work I drafted an e-mail that my CEO was to send to a senior European Commission official. The whole point of the mail was that the conversation was being held at that senior level, peer to peer. Both sender and recipient use short versions of their name. They are known by and referred to exclusively using those short names, but here's the problem — the recipient of that mail uses the full version of his name in his e-mail address.

Ah! No. What to do? If he'd been addressed by his full name that would be as wrong as calling me Philip, or at the very least would seem awkward. But to use the name everyone ever refers to him by would see over familiar given the lack of empirical evidence that that's his preferred name. In the end we used the equivalent of 'Mr Smith' – but that really didn't seem right since it was signed 'Jeff.'

So, my plea is simple. If you use a short version of your name, like Phil, or Sue, or Greg – then use that in your e-mail address too. Use it everywhere, make that the name you’re known by – it makes everyone else's life a lot easier.

Thank you.