In much of Africa, many of the surviving noble titles are social courtesies that are recognized by customary law and little else. Even in states like Ghana and Nigeria, where the chiefdoms of the various tribes are either constitutionally or legally defined entities, only the titles of the dynastic monarchs like the members of the Ghanaian House of Chiefs and the Nigerian traditional rulers are substantive, while the pre-nominals Nana and Oloye that a great many of their traditional notables bear exist as communally ascribed honorifics with little legal significance.
In France, for example, many titles are not substantive titles but courtesy titles. A common practice is descending title when cadet males of noble families, especially landed aristocracy, may assume a lower courtesy title such as count even though lacking a titled seigneury themselves. For example the eldest son of the Duke of Paris (substantive title) may be called Marquess of Paris (courtesy title) and younger sons Count N. of Paris, where N. stands for the first name.
Courtesy title as principal title
During the Ancien Régime the only substantive titles were feudal, land-based, and resulted from a royal grant. In order to use the title of count, one had to own a seigneurie elevated to county and to comply with the remainder of the grant. These legal prescriptions, however, came to be consistently enforced only with respect to the title of duke (duc). Most titles were self-assumed courtesy titles, even those used at the royal court and in legal documents.
Courtesy title used by sons and daughters
The heir apparent of a titled nobleman used one of the lesser titles of his father as a courtesy title. In the 17th century, the heirs of the most powerful dukes were sometimes allowed to assume the title of prince. In the 18th, a common trend was for the heir to use the title of duke. It was achieved in one of three ways: The head of family may have two dukedoms and his heir could use the junior one; the head of family could resign his French peerage to his heir, who assumed a new title of duke while the father retained his ducal title; the king could confer a brevet de duc, that is formally accord the non-hereditary style and precedence of a duke to the heir of a ducal title.
The younger sons of a noble titleholder used one of the family's lesser titles, but rarely one of duke or prince. Even in untitled families of the gentry, every son used a different territorial designation, the so-called nom de terre. The clergymen before the episcopal ordination used the title of abbé, followed by the name of the principal title of their father. Members of the Order of Saint John used the title chevalier in the same fashion.
The daughters used the title of mademoiselle, followed by the name of a manor owned by their father.
For example, Anne Marie Louise d'Orléans, Duchess of Montpensier known as La Grande Mademoiselle, was the eldest daughter of Gaston d'Orléans (Monsieur) and his first wife Marie de Bourbon, Duchess of Montpensier. Anne Marie Louise was officially known as Mademoiselle from the time of her birth.
There is a detailed system of styles and courtesy titles in the United Kingdom, by which the eldest son, male-line grandson or great-grandson and heir of a peer may use a subsidiary title of his ancestor even though it is the ancestor who holds the title substantively. By United Kingdom law, users of courtesy titles have nonetheless been held to be commoners, eligible for election to the House of Commons rather than the House of Lords.
Article 40.2 of the republican Irish Constitution forbids the state conferring titles of nobility and a citizen may not accept titles of nobility or honour except with the prior approval of the Government. The continued conferring of United Kingdom Irish nobility titles on Irish citizens being considered anachronistic, all claims of nobility in Ireland are thus simply a courtesy title.
- "Courtesy title | Define Courtesy title at Dictionary.com". Dictionary.reference.com. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
- "ComDor Editorial Style Guide: Titles and Courtesy Titles". Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved 15 February 2013.
- Velde, François. "Titles of Nobility". Heraldica.org. Retrieved 27 May 2011.
- "40.2", Constitution of Ireland (Dublin: Stationery Office)