Please, call me ma'am

A friend's Facebook status update reminded me that I wanted to write about the honorific ma'am. Some women don't like to be called "ma'am." I do.

The term got some attention last fall when Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., chastised Gen. Michael Walsh for addressing her as "ma'am," instead of "senator," in a Senate committee hearing.

Some women don't like to be called "ma'am" because they think it's sexist or ageist. A woman in this camp may not want to be reminded that she is older than the person who is addressing her. She thinks, in other words, that "ma'am" means old, not respect or courtesy. Or she might think that it is a subtle way of putting her down as a woman or alluding unnecessarily to her marital status. Some women believe that "ma'am" is too formal. Some women think "ma'am" puts them down in a way that "sir" or "mister" doesn't diminish a man. I thought Senator Boxer was within her rights, but I also thought she should have let the general's references slide. It is, after all, the military's way to drill members on using "sir" and "ma'am." Senator Boxer ended up looking rather ungracious.

Natalie Angier of the New York Times summed up the arguments against "ma'am" in a piece last fall. Here is a transcript of NPR's Talk of the Nation with Angier, which includes interesting reactions from callers.

I am on the other side of this divide. I love to be called "ma'am." It indicates that I have reached a certain station in life — both by age and by personal and professional accomplishment. It's true that it means that I am not a young "miss" any more, but I don't wish to be and my gray hair would give me away every time. I deserve every "ma'am" that comes my way and some that have not. Like Senator Boxer, I worked long and hard to get here.

I have begun flinging around more "ma'am" too. The other day, I made a point of replying "no, ma'am, thank you," to an older female cashier who was giving me great service in a grocery store checkout line. She deserved my courtesy and respect, too, for doing a job well.

I would not, though, ever hold the lack of "ma'am" against anyone, whether restaurant server, grocery store bagger, taxi driver or child. It's fine by me if you don't call me "ma'am." But your tip might be better if you do.

Of course, this is a language blog, not an etiquette lesson. So now I must address the etymology of ma'am. It is a contraction of madam, which comes from "ma dame" or "my lady."  Madam has become associated with a certain kind of businesswoman, but it is a form of address for a woman who is married or has reached a respectable station in life. In Britain, the queen is "ma'am." I think that's a great recommendation for the term.

I would very much like to hear what you think. Please consider posting a comment on this blog.


This article was originally posted by the Raleigh News & Observer, a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.; is posted here to provide continuity; and is copyright © 2011 The News & Observer Publishing Company, which reserves the right to remove this post.