Merry Christmas, everybody! And speaking of Christmas ...

In Charles Dickens' novelette, A Christmas Carol, the main character Ebeneezer Scrooge is referred to several times by others as "Uncle Scrooge", including his nephew Fred. However, Scrooge is the character's surname.

In modern English usage, it seems that usually uncles and aunts are referred to by their given name -- hearing "Uncle Tom" or "Aunt Em" is much more natural than "Uncle Travers" or "Aunt Brown".

Nevertheless, the appellation "Uncle Scrooge" appears six times in A Christmas Carol, and "Uncle Ebeneezer" zero times.

Was Charles Dickens following the norm of Victorian familiar address when writing A Christmas Carol, with the custom changing over the course of decades? Or has the tradition been unchanged and Charles Dickens was portraying an unorthodox address?

  • 5
    I don't have an answer for you, but since most 19th century writings are out of copyright, it should be pretty easy to amass a small dataset from Project Gutenberg - take some prolific and prominent writers, download their work, and run a search for "Uncle" and "Aunt". That should give you a rough idea. Commented Dec 25, 2013 at 6:53
  • Interesting question. Note that there may be a difference between British and American custom with respect to this issue. The Brits among us will surely be helpful in elucidating that.
    – user2590
    Commented Dec 29, 2013 at 4:38
  • 1
    I suspect that, on both side of the pond, class has much more to do with the preferred usage than nationality. Part of the reason for Dickens to use "Uncle Scrooge" instead of "Uncle Ebenezeer" would have been to emphasize the withdrawn nature of his relationship to his nephew - they weren't even on a first-name basis yet! Commented Nov 8, 2015 at 15:01

2 Answers 2


I can only answer from a British perspective, but I think the answer is certainly "yes". Jane Eyre always refers to her aunt as "Mrs Reed", and addresses her as " Aunt Reed". First names were far less frequently used in Victorian society - men, and boys at public school (private schools for US readers) almost universally addressed each other by their surnames, whilst women would refer to "Miss" or "Mrs" X, even if related - e.g my sister Lady Smith or my Aunt Jones. In one Victorian novel - sorry, will try to find the reference - a countess refers to her eldest son by his courtesy title, not his name. In the Barchester novels, Mrs Proudie regularly addresses her husband as "Bishop". To use a first name, particularly in relation to an older relative, would have been regarded as shockingly disrespectful.

Cannot answer for US usage, I'm afraid, which may well have been less formal. Hope this helps.

  • 2
    +1 - my tradition obsessed grammar school still does this surname thing!
    – Semaphore
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 10:19
  • 1
    So far as I know, this is the accurate answer. Now, if only I could get my wife and kids to address me as "Bishop", or "Professor". :) Commented Sep 10, 2019 at 23:43
  • @paulgarrett Dream on! ;-)
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Sep 11, 2019 at 3:31
  • Families were a lot larger in Victorian times, and so having several aunts or uncles with the same last name would not have been unusual. How would you have addressed or referred to them unambiguously, if not by using their first names?
    – Psychonaut
    Commented Dec 12, 2022 at 10:32

Once again, it's Google Ngrams to the rescue.

Both British and American English show a very strong preference for "Uncle John" over "Uncle Smith" during the Victorian era.

  • 1
    The Ngrams certainly show a very strong preference for Uncle John over Uncle Smith. But how does that relate to the question?
    – andy256
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 3:13
  • 2
    I think you want a cross-ratio, something like (uncle john)*(smith)/[(john)*(uncle smith)].
    – user2848
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 6:28
  • 1
    I had never heard of Ngrams before, so thanks for that, I now just have to work out how to use it! However, I don't see how a correlation between "Uncle Smith" and "Uncle John" would help work out the overall frequency between "Uncle + surname" and "Uncle + first name"?
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Nov 16, 2014 at 11:06

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.