I've heard the phrase being used in multiple occasions. But I'm not sure, when exactly it is OK to use this phrase.

It seems to be acceptable in a religious context. For example a priest talking to a member of his church. It is of course OK if you are actually speaking to your son.

But I've also heard it being used in different situations. For example a man talking to some child. Or a much elderly person talking to a younger one. This is what I'm really interested in. Is the phrase always acceptable in these situations?

Are there other situations where the phrase would be acceptable?

  • 1
    I have a hard time imagining my son being used by someone when addressing a younger person, but son is quite common, I think mostly in AmE. Do you have examples of my son being used like that?
    – oerkelens
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 7:39
  • Well, now I'm not that sure anymore. I also heard it being used in movies or TV. I have no firsthand experience. But the question would be the same. I would never use a phrase like that in German. Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 7:44
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    If your photograph gives an accurate indication of your age, then forget this for another twenty years. Basically you can use this phrase with younger people in an avuncular way if you're old enough to be their grandfather. Don't attempt to use it. You aren't old enough to be able to use it in a friendly way. You'll just offend people if you get it wrong :) Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 10:40
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    @user3306356 Do you have any evidence to substantiate that claim? Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 10:40
  • 3
    It is in fact very common use in British English, and is a respectful term. And no you don't need to be old enough to be their grandfather.
    – smci
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 17:36

5 Answers 5


There are two cases for (my) son:

  1. Church context:
    One reason for celibacy in the catholic church is, that the priest should not be "distracted" by his own family, but consider his congregation as his family with him in a paternal role. Hence addressing him as "father XYZ". So it's perfectly acceptable to call his parishioners "my son" or "my daughter". This father/child addressing works in many different languages because it expresses an understanding of their relationship and tasks. The "my" is fine here.
  2. Seniority, often protective:
    Usually used without the "my", the address "son" expresses the - temporal, usually just for the moment - assumption of a father-like role (or mentor) by the speaker to the addressee. Think of "it takes a village to raise a child" (from a different origin, but same thought). It always carries an undertone of seniority, often reflected in the age difference. Normally, the speaker would use "son" in a well-meaning way, even when admonishing. This seems only to work for boys, though, I have never heard the phrase "daughter" in a similar context. "Kid" might perhaps work for girls.

just for the sake of completeness, as requested ^_^:

  1. Expressing the social or biological relationship:
    Father or mother talking to their son. But I'm quite sure that's not what OP was asking...
  • Kid most certainly works for girls, as anyone who has seen Casablanca will certainly remember :)
    – oerkelens
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 8:46
  • 3
    As an aside: "Son" or "My son" are both regularly used in Northern England by older men to younger, regardless of relation. "Lass" may be used for a girl, but there are a large number of these pet-name style references used: Duck, Love, Pet, Son, Lass, Dear. When I worked in a local shop at 15-16 years old, I was regularly referred to as "Son" by regulars.
    – Jon Story
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 10:56
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    Also, Go on my son is used in England for encouraging people to do something.
    – Albzi
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 12:53
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    @BeatAlex also in British English, get in there my son when someone has done something that you are proud of.
    – Tom Fenech
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 17:53
  • Isn't there also use by frat-boy types as parodied here youtu.be/pHH3brmhPyw?t=159 ? Commented Sep 1, 2021 at 10:20

The term is (literally) patronising. It says that you are speaking as a father (or mother, of course) might speak to their son. It implies that you consider yourself older and wiser than the person you are addressing. It is therefore very likely to cause mild offence if the other person has a different view of your status or of your relationship.

  • 1
    +1 for mentioning when it should not be used. Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 12:35

"My son" may be used in a condescending context.

Example: You have much to learn about being kind to people, my son.

It may also be used in an educating context.

Example: You did well on the archery range today my son.

It may be used in a parent to child conversation but may also be used in speech where you are trying to convey a person of authority or role model.

For instance, a parent might very well congratulate their child for a good performance in archery. A good friend may also compliment your performance and add "my son" if they perhaps taught their friend how to shoot a bow and arrow.

In general day to day conversation, it is not used.

  • This is perhaps a little too absolute but the extra examples and situations are a good addition to Stephie's answer. Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 9:15

Since you are in Germany, I shall add that it's more or less equivalent to saying "junger Mann", which I find myself using these days. So only use it if you are a lot older.

Actually, in English and in England I'd stick to just saying "son", if you feel you need to say it at all.

  • 1
    I (a German in Germany) typically only hear "junger Mann" by older women towards younger men (or to even older men), and "junge Frau" I typically hear from medium to old men towards old women.
    – phresnel
    Commented Dec 18, 2014 at 11:45
  • 1
    @phresnel It depends heavily on the location. „Der Rheinländer nennt jeden ,Jung‘. Außer alte Frauen, die nennt er ,junge Frau‘.“ I assume the same is true in English speaking countries. Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 6:29
  • @ChristopherCreutzig: I am Grenzländer, living by the Netherlands, but I am Rheinländer, too, less than 30 km for the bird from the Rhein :) I must add "junger Mann" is typically said in a humourous, funny way here, but sometimes in a more serious, instructive way, when the elder just caught a younger man in an act of brashness, discourtesy or impoliteness :) The same for "junge Frau", actually. Less polite would be "Fräulein", as it would imply that the woman is not married or not grown up. // It's fun to see our local language from the outside :D
    – phresnel
    Commented Dec 19, 2014 at 7:38

Not really an answer - but unable to comment... However, the usage of the phrase as the end of this exemplifies the usage. Doesn't specifically refer to the readers 'Son', but is the authoritive words of wisdom passed down by an elder.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too; If you can wait and not be tired by waiting, Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies, Or being hated, don’t give way to hating, And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim; If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster And treat those two impostors just the same; If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools, Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken, And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss, And lose, and start again at your beginnings And never breathe a word about your loss; If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew To serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch, If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you, If all men count with you, but none too much; If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

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