Supplementary Appendix: Honorific Titles

A Word About Honorific Titles

As noted in the project introduction, I leave many peculiarly German titles untranslated for the sake of maintaining a bit more of the specifically German flavor of these materials. That is, titles such as count, countess, baron, and baroness with familiar English equivalents are translated, while Rath, Geheimrath (or Geheimer Rath), Justizrath generally are not, nor are Herr, Frau, or Fräulein, though I do use Madam and Mademoiselle more than Frau or Fräulein because Caroline herself and many of her correspondents do as well, albeit without strict consistency.

The residual French influence from the court of Friedrich II of Prussia (the Great) was still quite strong despite the rather different court tenor of his successor, Friedrich Wilhelm II of Prussia; moreover, Caroline herself, with many of her female friends, attended boarding schools where acquiring fluency in French was one of the focal points.

That said, the honorific titles in Germany, particularly during the late eighteenth century, added a colorful, specifically German element to social intercourse (and certainly epistolary correspondence) that I am disinclined to do without. It is, however, important to bear in mind that not all these titles signal an official position in the sense normally understood. Goethe eventually did indeed become a Geheimrath (privy councilor or counselor) in the administration in Weimar with official duties.

By contrast, when Johann Diederich Gries, later in life, was granted the wholly honorific title of Hofrath based essentially on his accomplishments as a translator, he not surprisingly viewed it as a rather empty gesture; he writes in a letter to a friend (Aus dem Leben J. D. Gries, 141):

Your reproach that I did not “appropriately” announce my elevation of status to you could not but make me laugh. Have you ever announced to me any of your own successive distinctions, offices, titles, and orders? And after all, those were at least quite real things, whereas my own paltry Hofrath distinction is nothing but foam and shadow. A few years ago, when they first offered me this honorific distinction, I politely declined; this time, they did not even bother to ask.

Similarly, Wilhelm Schlegel was granted the honorific status and title of Rath (albeit at a much earlier stage in his life, on 28 May 1796, when he was twenty-eight) by Ludwig Friedrich II von Schwarzburg-Rudolstadt — again based essentially on his reputation as a literary critic, but utterly without attendant duties or responsibilities. Yet the social significance of the title is evident from its bestowal being announced in social section of the most prominent Jena literary periodical (incidentally, Wilhelm was not yet even residing in Jena; Intelligenzblatt of the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung [1796] 76 [Saturday, 18 June 1796] 636):

Herr August Wilhelm Schlegel, lately returned [to Germany] following the Dutch revolution [the Batavian Republic in Holland, proclaimed on 19 January 1795] and now residing in Jena, received the status of a Fürstlich-Schwarzburg-Rudolstädtischer Rath.

For a sense of how these titles, their bestowal, and their use struck English visitors at the time (here from the 1830s, though little had changed), of their approximate meanings and translations, and of how something indeed quite singular is lost in translation, see the following accounts:

(1) Encyclopaedia Americana: A Popular Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, Literature, History, Politics, and Biography . . . on the basis of the seventh edition of the German Conversations-Lexicon, ed. Francis Lieber, vol. 3 (Philadelphia 1835), 580–81:

Counsellor (in German, Rath). In Germany, the mania for titles is carried to a greater degree than in any other country in Europe. Almost every man is desirous of possessing one, and the title of even the lowest officer is reverently repeated, with a preceding Mr. [i.e., Herr], as often as the individual is addressed by persons of equal or lower rank; for instance, we have Mr. Lieutenant, nay sometimes Mr. Taxgatherer, and even Mrs. Taxgatheress (Frau Steuerteinnehmerin [i.e., wife of Mr. Taxgatherer]). The title Rath (counsellor), in particular, has been distributed with a most ridiculous profusion.

In all branches of government, you meet counsellors in abundance. Every one is a counsellor who has passed through certain preparatory degrees, particularly in Prussia. In fact, the term, in Prussia, is as common as mandarin in China. The judges are not judges, but court-counsellors, which title, for the sake of precision, is amplified to country, or city, or high-country-court counsellor (Oberlandesgerichtsrath). There are also Finanz-Räthe, Medizinal-Räthe, Regierungs-Räthe, &c.; and, in all branches, Geheime-Räthe, as, Geheime-Medizinal-Räthe, Geheime-Finanz-Räthe, &c.

Moreover, as it always happens that honors and titles gradually decline in value, new ones must be invented: thus, in Prussia, the title Geheim-Rath being given to persons who have nothing to do with the private deliberations of the government, it has been deemed necessary to give to the actual counsellors a new and distinguishing title: they are called real-privy-counsellors. And you find, therefore, in Prussia Wirkliche-Geheime-Ober-Finanz-Räthe (real-privy-highfinance-counsellors)! and so in all branches. And who are these real-privy-high &c.’s? You would think they were at least several degrees higher than the privy counsellors of England. They are, in fact, however, mere assistants of the minister.

Besides this host of Räthe, who have actually official duties to discharge, there is another swarm, equally numerous, of people whose title of counsellor is a mere title of honor, like the Chinese peacock’s feather. The title most generally bestowed in this way is Hofrath (counsellor of the court). Hofräthe and Geheime-Hofräthe are so common in Germany, that a traveller observes, if you spit out of the window on a crowd, it is ten to one that you hit a Hofrath.

There are also Bau-Räthe (building-counsellors), Steuer-Räthe (tax-counsellors), Universitats-Räthe, Commerzien-Räthe; and again the same titles, with the honorary term Geheime (privy) prefixed, as Geheime-Bau-Räthe, &c. The title of Kriegs-Rath (counsellor of war) is often given to men who have nothing military in their occupation or habits. The old proverb says, Sat verbum sapienti [a word to the wise], but here we are tempted to exclaim, Sat verbum stulto [a word to the stupid].

(2) John Murray (Firm), A Hand-Book for Travellers on the Continent: Being a Guide through Holland, Belgium, Prussia, and Northern Germany, and Along the Rhine, from Holland to Switzerland, 2nd ed. (London 1838), 195–96 (satirical illustration from Joseph Richter, Bildergalerie weltlicher Misbräuche: Ein Gegenstück zur Bildergalerie katholischer und klösterlicher Misbräuche [Frankfurt, Leipzig 1785], illustration preceding p. 93):

A fondness for titles, orders, and high-sounding forms of address, which was ever the characteristic of the Germans, though perhaps less intense than formerly, has by no means yet disappeared. The German is scarcely happy until he can hang a little bit of striped riband from his button-hole, and every effort of interest and exertion is made to increase the number of them, and of the crosses and stars which dangle from them. This national weakness is however, to a certain extent, gradually disappearing. . . .

One habit of German society, which cannot fail sometimes to occasion a smile to an Englishman, though it costs him some trouble to acquire it, is the necessity of addressing everybody, whether male or female, not by their own name, but by the titles of the office which they hold.


To accost a gentleman, as is usual in England, with — Sir (Mein Herr), if not considered among the Germans themselves as an actual insult, is at least not complimentary; it is requisite to find out his office or profession. The commonest title to which everybody aspires is that of Councillor (Rath), which is modified and extended by various affixes and prefixes till it reaches up to Geheimrath (privy councillor), a title to which somewhat of real importance is attached, and which we have also in England.

In Germany there is a Rath for every profession: an architect is a Baurath; an advocate, a Justizrath, &c. &c.; and a person with no profession at all contrives to be made a Hofrath (court councillor), a very unmeaning title, which is generally given to persons who were never in a situation to give advice to the court.

The title Professor is much abused, as it is certainly appropriated by many persons who have no real claim to it by their learning or office. It is better, in conversing with a German, to give a person a rank greater than he is entitled to, than to fall beneath the mark. It is upon this principle that an Englishman is sometimes addressed by common people, to his great surprise, as Herr Graf (Mr. Count), and often as Euer Gnaden (your Lordship).

Every man who holds any public office, should it be merely that of an under-clerk, with a paltry salary of 40 l. a-year, must be gratified by hearing his title, not his name. Even absent persons, when spoken of, are generally designated by their official titles, however humble and unmeaning they may be.

The ladies are not behind in asserting their claims to honorary appellations. All over Germany, a wife insists upon taking the title of her husband, with a feminine termination. There is Madame General-ess, Madame PrivyCouncillor-ess, Madame Daybook-Keeper-ess, and a hundred others [editor’s note: in this present edition, these expressions are rendered as, e.g., “wife of Professor so-and-so”].

These titles sometimes extend to an almost unpronounceable length; only think, for instance, of addressing a lady as, Frau Oberconsistorialdirectorin (Mrs. Directress of the Upper Consistory Court). This may be avoided, however, by substituting the words gnädige Frau (Gracious Madame), in addressing a lady. It must at the same time be observed, that this fondness for titles, and especially for the prefix von (of, equivalent to the French de, and originally denoting the possessor of an estate), is to a certain extent a vulgarity, from which the upper classes of German society are free.

The rulers of Germany take advantage of the national vanity, and lay those upon whom they confer the rank under obligation; while they at the same time levy a tax upon the dignity proportionate to its elevation: thus a mere Hofrath pays from 30 to 40 dollars annually, and the higher dignities a more considerable sum. If, however, the title is acquired by merit, no tax is paid, but merely a contribution to a fund for the widows and children of the class.

Certain forms and titles are also prefixed on the address of a letter; thus a Count must be adddressed Hoch-geborener-Herr (High-born Sir); a Baron, a member of the higher noblesse, and a minister, even though not of noble birth, is called hoch-wohlgeboren; a merchant or roturier must content himself with being termed wohl-(well)geboren, while hoch-edel (high-noble) is ironically applied to tradesmen.

And finally, concerning the titles bestowed on university professors specifically — with whom, of course, Caroline had copious contact during her life — see the anonymous “Letter from an American in Europe,” The United States Literary Gazette 4 (April 1 to October 1, 1826) (Boston 1826) no. 2 (April 15, 1826) 102–6, here 102:

The professors are appointed by the civil government of each state. There are different ranks among them. They are at first only professores extraordinarii, with little or no salary from government. As they become more distinguished, they are advanced to the rank of professores ordinarii; then they receive successively, as a sort of retaining fee, to prevent their accepting offers from other universities, the honorary titles of Hofrath, Justiz-rath, Geheimer-rath, which may be translated, Counsellor of State, Counsellor of Justice, Privy Counsellor; in some few cases, Kitter, which is perfectly untranslatable; and last of all, one or two in a century arrive at the ultimum of a German’s notion of earthly dignity, in the permission to set “von” (answering to the Dutch “van” and the French “de“) before their name.

For one might say, perhaps, without uncharitableness, that the Germans are title-mad.

Translation © 2014 Doug Stott