What did you just call me?

The older man with gray hair and a rugged jeans jacket stood behind me in line at the grocery store. He had an envious selection of goods for 10 am on a Monday morning. Two quarts of ice cream, a bottle of wine and a large bag of mixed candy. When I commented that his choices were more fun than mine, he commended my bananas and low salt soy sauce.

After our transactions were complete and I was heading out I told him to “have a good one.” A cliché, I know. He responded with “you too, ma’am.” MA’AM! I just turned 60 and now I’m “ma’am” to an old guy.

The realization that maybe I was old crept in as I drove home and fumed. After all, I am silver-haired and remember time before the internet, before cell phones, and conversations without emoticons or acronyms for whole sentences, where vocal cords were involved.

Then I wondered if the word “ma’am” was as bad as I made it out to be. Words are powerful. As Dumbledore said, “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.”

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As a lover of words, I went to the bible, the Oxford English Dictionary, for guidance.

In the North American usage, the word “ma’am” originates in the mid-17th century as a contraction of madam, “a term of respectful or polite address used for a woman.”

Okay, that’s not insulting. It doesn’t imply age or status. Just gender.

Next the OED covers the British definitions — and here is a good example of how what we speak in American is English in name only.  These definitions make me crave being called “ma’am” more often.

  1. A term of address for female royalty. The Queen is called “ma’am”, and no one else.
  2. A term of address for a female officer in the police or armed forces who is senior to the speaker.

Then I checked “madam,” since that is where “ma’am” originated.  “Madam” is a modification of the Old French “ma dame, or my lady.” Here is where the term turns shady. Madam in the OED has three definitions.  Again, we have the “used to address or refer to a woman in a polite or respectful way.”  But now we add some formal and informal usage. Formally it is “used to address a woman at the start of a formal or business letter,” and “used before a title to address or refer to a female holder of that position. For example, ‘Madam President’.”  

Informally, a “madam” is, “a conceited or bossy girl or young woman,” or “a woman who runs a brothel.” Ah-ha. There it is! Google famous madams and you get 68,500 results, and a scan of the first few pages doesn’t indicate any famous women presidents.

The upshot of my research is that the use of “sir” and “ma’am” is culturally charged. In the Southern United States, it was taught almost like a religion, and anyone not so taught was (and still is if the comments on the internet are to be believed) seen as course, uncouth, rude, and leading to the downfall of everything that is good and holy. I was taught to be polite, say “yes”, “no” and “thank you.” However, somewhere along the way, I also incorporated the understanding that ma’am is shortened for “madam” and I don’t want that association. Turns out it isn’t an age thing at all – but the implication that I might be a conceited or bossy young woman!

Do you have a word or phrase that intrigues you? Ever wonder where it comes from, or how it became part of common use? Send the word or phrase to me in the comment section and I’ll write a future blog about it.

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