From the Latin ‘ingenium’, innate character or intelligence

On the top floor of S-Meg Tower, in the heart of Asia’s leading international business centre, the Big Boss dismisses the dynamic management team after the morning meeting, but he asks the Company Gwailo to stay. He is unnerved by a missive he has received from an obscure but uppity little professional body that appears to be lobbying Hong Kong’s great and good for attention, respect or recognition.

They are not, I suspect, entirely representative of their trade, whose practitioners are acclaimed throughout the world for their no-nonsense, pragmatic, can-do unpretentiousness and, in some cases, tattoos. But in the hierarchy-clinging Big Lychee, where people crave letters after their name and a board member of a famous charity styles himself ‘Duke’, even plain and practical men can succumb to the ever-amusing vice of wanton status-fabrication.

These gentlemen’s names are: Ir Dennis Wong, Ir WS Kong, Ir Charles Mok, Ir Stanley Ng, Ir CK Leung, and so on.

At first, I assume this ‘Ir’ is a misprint or a spelling mistake. The M of Mr has somehow come out as an I. But the letter M appears intact everywhere else in the letter – otherwise the third man on the list would be called Ir Charles Iok. It can’t be the D from Dr, either, or there would be a Ir Iennis Wong. It says ‘Ir’ because they want ‘Ir’. But these are Hongkongers, not people from overseas who would use exotic honorifics like Sri or Kuhn or Moulay or Tunku.

I am not even sure how you pronounce it. ‘Ire’? ‘Ur’? ‘Ear’? (If the latter, what if the person’s name is, say, Waxman?)

More to the point: what on earth does it mean?

The Big Boss is nervous. Like most members of the Hong Kong establishment, he is comfortable with his and everyone else’s place in the order of things as denoted by titles, post-nominals and even positions at dinner tables. He needs to be able to identify others as inferiors, peers or superiors, and he can rank various permutations of ‘The Hon’, GBM, GBS, MH and JP, plus MBE and OBE, at a glance. But this ‘Ir’ thing is disturbing. Does he shoeshine them, or vice-versa? Probably the latter – no-one has ever heard of these people – but he must be totally sure. One of the Big Boss’s greatest nightmares is failing to pay full symbolic deference to someone important. To refer to a fellow tycoon as ‘Mr’ and then find the guy has an honorary doctorate would be his idea of social death.

I tell him it must be something to do with the fact that these gentlemen are all engineers. A quick search on Google confirms it. It’s an abbreviation of the French word ‘Ingenieur’. It seems Malaysians, as if they don’t have enough bewildering titles already, are particularly fond of it.

He can relax. “They’re nothing,” I assure him.

Not true, of course. Where would we be without our bridge-builders and tunnel-diggers, with their shiny hard hats and rolled-up blueprints? But ‘Ir’? I can’t believe this is going to catch on.

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16 Responses to From the Latin ‘ingenium’, innate character or intelligence

  1. Prof. Dr. Ho says:

    ‘Ir’ is widely used on the Continent.

  2. Polly Glott says:

    IRr(e) is the German for ‘madman’. IRrtum means a mistake or error.
    Perhaps this is the origin of the title.

  3. Norbert Dentressangle Jr says:

    Most engineers are boring sods. A sub-set of the species, the chippy-shouldered ones, seem very keen on using the title.

  4. Maugrim says:

    The “Doctor’ one is the hardest. Knowing who has received a freebie so to speak and who needs to be referred to by this title is a minefield.

  5. Xiao Yao says:

    The funniest thing about the status-lust is that most *real* Ph.D.s — such as university professors — don’t flaunt their degrees and prefer to be addressed by their first name.

  6. Injunear says:

    I once wanted to be an injunear but couldn’t speel it!

    A mechanical engineer, electrical engineer and civil engineer are debating over the design of the human body.

    “God must be a mechanical engineer” argues the first. “Just look at how the arms and legs have joints and perform complex movement”

    “Wrong, god is an electrical engineer” says the second “just look at how the body is controlled by millions of tiny electrical signals sent from the brain through the nervous cortex”

    “Your’e both wrong” says the third. “God must be a civil engineer. “Who else would put the main recreation area next to the sewage outlet!”

  7. Jack Custard says:

    Prof. Dr. Ho above said:

    ‘Ir’ is widely used on the Continent.

    Interesting. What’s its effect on the incontinent?

  8. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    I want a phony religious title. Something like Pope Tiu Fu Fong.

  9. Tiu Fu Fong says:

    Actually, I’d like a scheme where you can buy cognomens for other people, like Sir Donald Tsang the Mildly Ineffective, Richard Li the Undeserving or Duke Raymond Lee the Not Vainglorious At All.

  10. In Ir says:

    Senior members of the Hong Kong Institution of Engineers, with its offices high above Causeway Bay MTR, address each other this way in correspondence. They reckon it hails from Roman times, giving their trade some sort of historial foundation. Only in Hong Kong have I heard engineers so obsessed with grandiose titles

  11. Pcrghll says:

    Ingegniere is a much sought title in Italy. Perhaps because of glamorous Gianni Agnelli of Fiat, who was simply known as il ingegniere

  12. Doctor Doctor, PhD says:

    Never mind all this Ir-speak — who is the rather ravishing Engineer lass in Hemmer’s closing picture? I’ve got designs on her …

  13. Ir Charles Mok? Mustn’t be me 🙂 …. although I was trained as an engineer but I am not a member of HKIE so I would not be “accredited” as such to use “Ir”.

  14. Ir Miguel Sanchez says:

    Polar opposite to life ‘ere in London. When the photocopier breaks, we get the office-wide email explaining the situation and that the engineer has been called in to fix it.

    And yes, this is a (proper) engineering company…

  15. Rory says:

    The girl in the funny hat is not an Ir at all but a surveyor.

  16. Peter B says:

    When the UK Inst of Engineers came out with the silly ” Ir” title I nearly died laughing . What are you ? I’m an ” Ir” What’s that? It’s – er – an Ir , an Engineer . Then why on earth don’t your say so ? Er…. because engineers ( especially Iif they are CHARTERED like I am ) can call themselves “Ir’s” Oh !?

    It’s almost as silly as the title ” C. Phys = Chartered Physicist” which ws conjored up at about the same time as Ir.

    Well, please make sure you address me in future as ” Ir Peter C. Phys” because that’s what I am ( although i hate to admit it)

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