The trouble with titles

Column published in the Observant, Maastricht

The first time I saw it, I thought it was quaint. The second time, so-so. But from the third to the fifty billionth time, it’s just made me want to scratch my eyeballs out.

No, I’m not talking about Geert Wilders. I’m talking about the Dutch love of titles – lots of them. Like Dr. ing. Whatshisname. Or Mrs Prof. Whatsherface. Not to mention the more exuberant Prof. dr. ir. ing. mr. Ridiculously Overqualified.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: it’s those Germans who are the true title connoisseurs. And it’s true: the English speaker’s first introduction to this is usually from old war movies with Hitler barking out orders to Herr Doktor Goebbels. But from Maastricht to Middelburg, Eindhoven to Enschede, they’re just another fact of life in the land of cheese and tulips, too.

Many Dutch don’t realise that the use of multiple titles is an issue in English. But the fact is, to the English-speaking mind, lining up your titles one after the other is just, quite simply, odd. Prof., Dr, Ms, Mr – they’re all fine, but you can only have one.

My all-time favourite has got to be Prof. Dr So-and-so. This is partly endearing, partly infuriating. Here’s the thing. In Anglo countries, you need a PhD before you can become a professor. So if your title is ‘Prof.’, then ‘Dr’ is implied. And in any event – the word professor gets across the message loud and clear: you are very smart. We get it already.

But in the Netherlands, so I’ve discovered, it’s possible to be a professor without actually having a PhD. So it makes sense that if you’ve earned the right to have both titles, you’d like to use them. Which, of course, is no problem in Dutch, because your language allows for this. But in English … well, as stated: it makes you look funny.

And herein lies the problem for English-language editors. It’s our job to ensure that you, the client, are perceived as you ought to be. You are clever, and that should be made known. Maar helaas: if any native speakers are going to read that English text, the double title ‘Prof. Dr’ won’t make you seem twice as smart. On the contrary, it usually prompts one of two reactions. Either you look pompous. Or – somewhat ironically – you look a bit dopey, for not knowing ‘proper English’.

With English on the rise in the Netherlands, it’s not an issue that will fix itself soon. But ask me again in 20 years. I’m hoping to have some more titles of my own then, and ‘Prof. Dr. Edwards’ has a nice ring, wouldn’t you say?


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