In Last Friday's Los Angeles Times calendar section, it was reported (in an excellent article by Randy Lewis) that R&B legend Aretha Franklin, in a performance at the Nokia Theater, offered a moving a tribute to her "honorary niece," the late, great Whitney Houston.
How cool that must have been for a singer as talented and accomplished as Whitney Houston to have this world-renowned diva, this entertainer whom Rolling Stone magazine called the greatest singer in history, designate her as her "honorary niece." What a compliment! It's like Mick Jagger naming Axl Rose his honorary nephew.
But as flattering as these honorifics are, they puzzle me. I know what a nephew and niece are (in fact, I have several of my own), and I'm aware that civil law, for purposes of inheritance and bequeathment, recognizes them as blood relatives. Accordingly, because "niece" and "nephew" have actual, precise legal definitions, it seems a bit strange to have them used casually as terms of endearment or affection
On the other hand, if you're going to do it, why not do it right? If you're going to declare your undying love for someone who is biologically unrelated to you, why limit yourself to niece or nephew? Why not go the extra mile and designate this treasured individual as your "honorary" son or daughter, or "honorary" brother or sister? I mean, what the hell? Since it's all make-believe anyway, why not make it worthwhile?
And there's the question of reciprocity. Is the person required to accept the designation? Does the woman you name as your honorary niece have to agree to it? Can they refuse? I think not. I think you can name anyone you like to be your honorary relative, and they can't stop you. Obviously, there are limits. It goes without saying that a man can't designate a woman as his "honorary wife" and expect her to have sex or cook for him.
Honorary doctorate degrees are another oddity. Several years ago, a successful country & western singer was given an honorary doctorate by an accredited college, even though, by the singer's own admission, he had never even finished high school, having been forced to drop out in order to work full-time on his family's tobacco farm. His road to fame, from such modest beginnings, has been widely publicized.
Still, modest beginnings or not, why would you give this unlettered man something as deeply rooted in academia as a Ph.D.? Wouldn't awarding him the high school diploma he never received have been honor enough? Indeed, receiving his high school diploma retroactively would have been a gesture he both understood and appreciated.
Or, if you were in a wildly generous mood, you could award him a bachelor's degree. For a high school drop-out that would be one a coveted prize. After all, this man had never set foot on a college campus, yet here he is, receiving a sheepskin. But why the wretched excess of a doctorate? Why give him the granddaddy of all academic degrees? What on God's earth is a hillbilly singer going to do with a phony Ph.D.?
In truth, this whole phenomenon of honorary titles leaves me perplexed. I'm seriously considering asking the brilliant philosopher and linguist, Noam Chomsky, to explain it to me. But first, I'll have to break the news to him that he's my uncle.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com