According to planetrulers.com the world has 57 dictatorships. The website defines a dictator as the ruler of a land rated “not free” by the American pro-democracy organisation Freedom House. You’ll recognise a fair few of the names on the list: Vladimir Putin, president of Russia. Kim Jong-un, president of North Korea. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey. Then there’s Ali Khamenei, supreme leader of Iran, where a courageous revolt led by women and girls against the oppressive Islamic republic shows no sign of fading. Their battle cry as thousands are arrested and hundreds killed by the regime: Woman, Life, Freedom.
Absolute, unaccountable, undemocratic power is quite the mood booster, and many of the 57 dictators look surprisingly jolly in their photographs. One of them, Serdar Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan, is even cuddling a cute white dog looking for all the world like a baddy from a Bond film.
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, emir of Qatar, who, according to reports, has three wives and 13 children, and plays badminton, is photographed in mid-guffaw. In real life he has been a bit irritated lately. The leader of a country where political parties are not allowed to exist is cross about the criticism of Qatar’s imminent hosting of the Fifa World Cup. Those who point out that homosexuality is illegal in Qatar and women’s rights are restricted by male guardianship laws are being unfair by stating these facts, according to the emir. Deep down, he probably knows the criticism doesn’t matter anyway. Despite calls to boycott Qatar, billions will tune in across the globe because, you know, soccer.
Arguably the most powerful of all the dictators on the list is Xi Jinping, of China. According to the UN high commissioner for human rights, under his rule the Chinese government has committed “serious human rights violations” in its treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang. When that dictator was once again, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, reappointed as president, for a third term, with not a single woman in the cabinet, I followed the news with interest. I observed the way some newspapers referred to Xi as Mr Xi and the way others, such as the Guardian and the Financial Times, merely referred to the dictator as Xi. It got me thinking about something I don’t tend to think about a lot as a general rule: honorifics.
An honorific, for readers who like me have not spent a lot of time contemplating them, is a title that, according to one definition I found, “conveys esteem, courtesy, or respect for position or rank when used in addressing or referring to a person”. For example, honorific esteem, courtesy and respect were shown constantly by newspapers to Adolf Hitler during the second World War. Pretty much every publication called the architect of the Holocaust Mr Hitler at the time. Then, as now, you can be the most malign, murderous, evil, corrupt, dangerous person on the planet and you will sometimes be treated with an honorific indicating courtesy and respect when your name appears in a newspaper.
[ Róisín Ingle: I asked two young men at a window seat if I could join their pub quiz team ]
Honorifics have long been the subject of occasional articles in newspapers across the world. For example, in 1987 a commentator upset about the decline in use of honorifics wrote an article with the headline: ‘Why no Honorifics? Newspapers are making a Ms.stake.’ That article appeared in the New York Times, which, along with this newspaper in places, still clings to honorifics. In Iran the aforementioned dictator Ali Khamenei is in charge of a country where women and girls are dying in the custody of so-called morality police for the “crime” of not wearing the correct headgear. A country where women and girls and men and boys are regularly seen in the streets shouting “death to the dictator”. That dictator is afforded honorific courtesy in the New York Times. It’s Mr Khamenei to you, according to them. Vladimir Putin has wrought unspeakable horror on Ukraine, yet in news stories he is Mr Putin while North Korea’s Kim Jong-un becomes the cuddly-sounding Mr Kim.
Interestingly, according to the Irish Times style guide, convicted prisoners, dead people, journalists, authors, entertainers and sportspeople do not take an honorific. I don’t know the reason for this distinction. I do know it once led to a news report in these pages involving a dispute between the acclaimed journalist Sam Smyth and the businessperson Denis O’Brien where Smyth was referred to as Smyth throughout the article but O’Brien was described as Mr O’Brien.
If I were Ms Supreme Leader of The Irish Times, in addition to instantly commanding all employees to carry out their work from wherever they fancied themselves at all times, I would remove honorifics forever. There’d be no more old-school Mr This, or Ms That or Mrs Whoever on my watch. A person’s first name or surname would be sufficient, depending on the context.
As Madam Super Supreme Leader I would make one exception to this honorific ban. I would introduce a new honorific for all the despots and dictators. It’s important to note that while dictators come in all shapes and sizes they usually have one thing in common: every dictator in the world is in possession of the same distinct piece of anatomy. So henceforth, as Self-Appointed Mrs Go On Ya Good Thing Supreme Leader, I will be referring to the dictators with a newly invented by me and extremely fit-for-purpose honorific. Please be upstanding for Dic, which is of course short for Dictator. There will also be a few honorary Dics in the mix, like, say, the newly self-appointed “sole director” of Twitter Elon Musk. That’s some Big Dic Energy, right there.
[ Róisín Ingle: I let Taylor Swift’s music wash over me. Then I heard the lyrics. I nearly fell off the bed ]
Basically, if he looks like a Dic, acts like a Dic and subjugates people like a Dic then we should refer to him as a Dic.
I hope The Irish Times, the New York Times, the BBC and others soon realise that the respectful “Mr” is no longer necessary for anybody, especially not autocrats. History has shown us that a Dic rarely changes his spots, but we can at least change his honorific.
So say it loud: Woman, Life, Freedom. And, even louder, especially in the soccer terraces — down with all the Dics.