Sometimes current/former politicians are referred to by their most senior held (previous or current) title, rather than strictly their current title.

For example, in a 2016 Presidential debate, Hillary Clinton was referred to as 'secretary', even though her role of secretary of state ceased 3 years' prior in Feb 2013.

Another example is Barack Obama's current medium profile stating 'President'.

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When does the convention of referring to a politician by their most senior held title (rather than strictly their current title only) apply? It contrasts somewhat to some other professions like medicine or finance, where referring to oneself by a previous position can be viewed as inaccurate (e.g. as a doctor or financial planner respectively, if one does not currently hold the said position).

  • 1
    She didn't hold any office when she was running in 2016 from what I remember.
    – Joe W
    Nov 19 '20 at 2:02
  • @JoeW I agree. So why the title 'secretary'? (perhaps a tacit shortcut for 'former secretary', for everyone's convenience)
    – stevec
    Nov 19 '20 at 2:06
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    Note that this convention is country-specific. In the UK, for example, politicians are only referred to by their current titles, not their previous ones. There is only ever one person at at a time addressed as "Prime Minister", for example. Nov 19 '20 at 9:15
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    As an interesting side note: In Germany, ex chancellors retain their title of Bundeskanzler but with the initials a.D. (meaning außer Dienst or out of office). It is common to refer to them as Altbundeskanzler (literally old Federal Chancellor) but that is not an official title or address and they remain addressed as Herr Bundeskanzler, sometimes with an explicit a.D. (currently this only applies to Schröder). For mayors (Bürgermeister), a similar term Altbürgermeister exists, but this is a formal title the town council awards to a mayor leaving office if they so desire.
    – Jan
    Nov 19 '20 at 11:05
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    So my hometown’s former mayor Schnitzer is Herr Altbürgermeister Schnitzer while ex-chancellor Schröder is Herr Bundeskanzler (a.D.) Schröder.
    – Jan
    Nov 19 '20 at 11:06

First of all, it is strictly a question of etiquette and protocol. It does not have a justiciable answer that a court could resolve.

Custom and practice would be to always refer to someone by their current title if they currently hold elective or judicial office, and to otherwise refer to someone by their highest title when there is an intent to recognize their prior service as a civil servant or elected official.

There are also standards of etiquette and precedent for which previously held posts are illustrious enough to call for recognition at all. Federal district court judge or Senator or President, yes. Dog catcher, or gymnastics judge or president of the intramural soccer club, not so much.

A good rule of thumb would be that a former title is normally recognized for anyone who would have been addressed "Honorable" while holding the office.

More specific and possibly legally meaningful standards apply to former military officers, but I'm not familiar with those standards.

  • 1
    As far as I'm aware, the current etiquette of referring to former office holders by their former titles is fairly recent. Etiquette books I've seen from 50 or 60 years ago proscribe the practice.
    – phoog
    Nov 19 '20 at 18:47
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    I've seen the practice in literary accounts (admittedly fictional but a product of their time) going back a couple of hundred years. There may have been a brief movement to end the practice that floundered.
    – ohwilleke
    Nov 19 '20 at 22:03
  • Sounds like a great follow up question for History.SE Nov 19 '20 at 22:18

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