An old joke I found in Mark Forsyth's "The Etymologicon", originally mentioned in the OED

A country lad, having been reproved for calling persons by their Christian names, being sent by his master to borrow a dictionary, thought to show his breeding by asking for a Richard Snary.

I understand the joke (for those who don't, the boy misheard Dictionary as Dick Snary, thinking it's a man's name.

Ignoring the outdated pronunciation needed for the joke to work, the confusion only works with "borrow a dictionary" and "borrow a Dick Snary"

It doesn't work in modern English, "get a dictionary" and "get Dick Snary" doesn't quite have the same effect.

But what does this old-fashioned article "a" before a person's name mean?

  • 1
    Nothing. Per the joke, the boy is simply repeating what he thought his master said. Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 21:18
  • this may be more of a question for "english language and usage"
    – Fummy
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 21:19
  • 1
    One might ask "is there a Richard Snary in the house?" Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 21:45
  • In the UK, I don't know about elsewhere, you can use an indefinite article before a person's name to mean "a person named", especially if the person has not previously been mentioned or is unknown to the listener or reader. Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 21:58
  • @MichaelHarvey it works the same in the U.S.
    – Andrew
    Commented Nov 21, 2018 at 22:32

1 Answer 1


Your objection to the joke is valid in older or current English. It would work fine if you phrased it as borrowing some person's time, as a polite way to ask for their help:

The boy asked if his master could borrow a Mr. Richard Snary (for a short while).

The use of "a" before a person's name indicates that the boy knows the name of the person, but not who exactly is that person, or even if that person is actually there. For example, suppose you call somewhere to ask for a particular person, but you're not sure if you have the right location:

Receptionist: Hello, this is the White House. How may I direct your call?

You: Hi, by any chance is there a Donald Trump there? Might be a Ronald Trump.

Side note: The only truly archaic part of the joke is the use of "master", a title which is rarely used nowadays, and almost never with the possessive as "his/her/your/my master". That would sound medieval, or possibly mad scientist. Nowadays we would say something like "boss", "teacher", "professor", or "tutor", depending on the exact nature of the relationship.

Ironically, in some contexts (usually art-related), "maestro" is a valid title, even though it literally is Italian for "master".

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