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Lord, Lady, Sir or Dame - A guide to the honors system

Knowing whether to address members of the UK’s aristocracy as Lord (or Lady) can be a confusing affair. The honors system also turns some more working-class heroes into Sirs and Dames. Here is our guide to getting it right.

The UK title system is known as the “peerage”. Up until 1958, all titles in the UK were hereditary peerages, conferred by the King or Queen of the day. Today, over half of the members of the House of Lords are life peers, signifying a shift away from inherited titles.

Hereditary titles have a hierarchy known as the five grades or ranks of the peerage, just as in various other European countries. The highest grade is duke/duchess, followed by marquess/marchioness, earl/countess, viscount/viscountess and baron/baroness.

Dukes and duchesses are addressed with their actual title, but all other ranks of the peerage have the appellation Lord or Lady. Non hereditary life peers are also addressed as Lord or Lady. 

So what about people known as Sir or Dame? These are individuals who have made outstanding contributions in their field and have been awarded official honors in the name of the reigning monarch.

There are different categories, but only those receiving the highest level of award are entitled to use the title Dame or Sir.

The fashion designer Sir Paul Smith, for example, received a knighthood in 2000 from Queen Elizabeth II, while actress Dame Judi Dench received the female equivalent of a knighthood in 1988 – Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

The honors system has nothing to do with inherited titles, although some still view the link to the establishment with suspicion.

This goes some way to explaining why, between 1951 and 1999, 270 people privately turned down honours, including Roald Dahl, Aldous Huxley, Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud.

John Lennon made a rather more public rejection when he returned his 1965 MBE (Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) to Her Majesty in 1969 as part of an ongoing peace protest with Yoko Ono.


Text: Emma Holmqvist Deacon