When I watch the classic American TV series Breaking Bad, I found that a guy called Jesse sometimes call his teacher 'Mr White', sometimes his wife called his husband 'Walt', but I find that his full name is 'Walter Hartwell White', why people call him differently?

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    Out of curiosity, hub, would you mind telling us what your native language is? I guess I just assumed that nicknames, titles, honorifics, etc., were present in all languages in some form; if there's a language/culture which only ever refers to a particular person by one specific name I'd be interested in learning about it!
    – A C
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 22:45
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    Is this really a question about English? I don’t know of a single language or community on earth which does not have the ability distinguish between familiar, neutral, formal, very formal, intimate, distant, reverent, condescending, etc., ways of addressing people. I’m almost 100% sure this holds for your own language too. Why wouldn’t people who have different relations to him use different ways of addressing him? Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 22:49
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    "My father calls me Junior, my mother calls me son, my daughter calls me dad, my wife calls me to dinner."
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 0:13
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    Is the question about why is 'Mr' not a part of his full name? Or when to use "Mr"? The 'Walt' => ''Walter' is not a strange shortened familiar version. Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 8:44

3 Answers 3


The general template for an Anglophone name is:

Title Given-name(s) Surname

"White" is his surname. Surnames are family names and are generally inherited. Traditionally this has been focussed on the male line - a woman would take the man's surname when they marry, and their children would usually take the man's surname too. (This is not entirely universal though. Sometimes a woman called Jones marrying a Mr Smith may, instead of changing her name to Smith, adopt a combined surname Smith-Jones, and their children would use that. Or she may simply continue to use Jones.)

Many English surnames are occupational (Thatcher, Baker, Cooper), some are patronymic (Johnson, Wilson), some are descriptive (Short), some come from geographical placenames or descriptors (Wood, Meadows).

Then we have given names, also called forenames or Christian names. (Many of these names are biblical in origin, but we often use the term Christian name even for non-biblical names of atheist/non-Christian people, it's just a linguistic habit.) Some people have only one given name (John Smith), others have many (John Edward William David Smith). Walter White appears to have two, Walter Hartwell, which is common. In this instance we may refer to 'Hartwell' as his middle name. It is quite common, although by no means universal, for one or more of child's given names to be that of a parent, grandparent etc.

Usually, people will only use one of those names as their day-to-day name. And usually, it will be the first - in this case Walter. This is not necessarily the case though. It is relatively common for (e.g.) John David Smith to go through life consistently presenting himself as 'David', even having "David Smith" on a workplace ID card for example. For example sports commentator Murray Walker is actually named Graeme Murray Walker.

Additionally, we also commonly vary the given names into nicknames and diminuitives. For example David Smith's friends and family may call him Dave.

Almost every traditional / common given name has at least one standard diminuitive. These are usually formed by shortening (Steven to Steve), adding -y or -ie (John to Johnny), or both (Christina to Chrissy), although sometimes it is less predictable (Margaret to Peggy!?)

Such diminuitive names are potentially a marker of closeness and familiarity. He may prefer to be called David at work, or by strangers, and consider the use of 'Dave' to be something that is exclusively reserved for his friends. On the other hand, he may also simply prefer 'Dave' in all situations.

Then we have titles. Historically these could denote man (Mister/Master) versus woman (Mrs/Miss), married (Mister/Mrs) versus unmarried (Master/Miss), and social rank or status (Sir, Lady, etc). In modern times some or even all of those aspects are somewhat controversial. "Mr" is now used as a basically universal term for men, without any implications about their marital or social status, while some favour "Ms" as a similarly 'neutral' female counterpart.

So finally reaching the actual question, why do people call him different things.

In formal and business situations "Title Surname" (Mr White, Mrs Smith, etc) is a standard format of respectful address. In everyday informal situations however we would expect to use simply their favoured forename (Walter), or a nickname variation of it ("Walt").

The full name ("Walter Hartwell White") is probably rarely used in spoken conversation, and mostly appears when filling in forms and paperwork. Stereotypically, the sound of someone (particularly a parent, teacher or authority figure) spelling out your full name has connotations of you being in big trouble!

(Of course please note the customs and traditions around people's names are extremely diverse, so nothing I say here is a solid rule.)

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    To add to the terminology, the first given name is also called the first name and the family name is also called the last name, giving first middle last (as three total is more common than four or more, at least int he US). And a single name may be more than one word. To make one up: Peggy Sue Marry Ann Del Webb. Peggy Sue is first, Marry Ann is middle, Del Web is last. It takes some getting used to to be able to predict the breakdown for multi-word names.
    – jaxad0127
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 1:45
  • In (American) usage, it's very common to call someone by their full name (first name, any and all middle names, last name) when they are about to be punished. This happens in a courtroom when sentence is about to be passed, but famously it also happens when Mom is angry. "Walter Hartnell White, you get in here and clean your room this instant!"
    – MT_Head
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 1:55
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    This is very good and complete. I would just add that we sometimes call a person by a "nickname" that has nothing to do with the name that they were given at birth. Sometimes these are descriptive, like "Lefty" for a left-handed person or "Red" for someone with red hair. Sometimes they relate to where the person is from, like "Tex" for someone from Texas. Sometimes the person just prefers a name to his given name, like the astronaut Virgil Grissom didn't like the name "Virgil" and so went by "Gus".
    – Jay
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 3:34
  • Just to add that some people use traditional surnames (like Hartwell as first or middle names — so you'll also see names like Harrison Ford or Mackenzie Foy that will use patronymic/occupational/etc. first names. Casual observation that this seems to be originally a Northern American phenomenon, but is becoming more common generally. Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 7:47

"Walt" is a nickname for "Walter" so his close friends and family would call him that. Jesse used to be his student. As a student, he addressed Walter more formally, as Mr. White. He continued that out of habit even after he was no longer his student.


To further elaborate on some of the other answers, the reason why students in his class refer to him as "Mister White" is because he's a high school teacher, and addressing your male teachers as "[Title] [Surname]" is traditional in most English-speaking countries. If he had a PhD, he'd be addressed as "Doctor White" (especially if he taught at a university); if he was a university professor, he'd be addressed as "Professor White".

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