At first I was stunned by the very idea. Another word that is so shocking to our sensibilities that we can only refer to it by its initial letter. One more word that so scrambles our intellects that we cannot comprehend the use-mention distinction and, therefore, are forbidden to mention. But what is it?
The stun turned to anger as I thought, “Really? Ma’am?”
As it turned out, the title on the front page of the HuffPo was not the same chosen by the author, Ronna Benjamin, a much more reasonable “Don’t Call Me Ma’am.”
The subject is not just of academic interest to me, it is also personal. As a child growing up in the American Deep South, I was taught that addressing a woman with ma’am was a sign of respect. We said it to our mothers, grandmothers, teachers, women we didn’t know, and even, if you wanted to both show respect and delight her, your much younger sister.
My first experience of culture shock (though, admittedly, a mild case of it) after moving to the Pacific Northwest was the first time I was rebuked for saying ma’am to someone. She was offended. It was a passing encounter and I had no opportunity to explain myself. At first, the encounter had no effect on my use of the word. But after it happened a few more times I became hesitant to use it. I cannot say that I’ve quit using it (30+ years of usage doesn’t just vanish that easily) but I can say that the frequency has declined.
I read Ronna Benjamin’s article with a hint of indignation for the first half. “No, that’s just not it,” I kept saying as she expressed her belief that it was never appropriate to address a woman as ma’am because she thought it meant “old.”
Ma’am, to many of us, is similar to sir when addressing a man. It is a manner of showing respect. What are our other choices to show respect if we get rid of it? We could extend the contraction back out and say madame but that has negative connotations of its own (one who operates a brothel). Or, we could replace the French with its English counterpart my lady. As much as I love the expression I think we’d sound rather foolish saying yes/no, m’lady or thank you, m’lady.
I must admit that about halfway through the article, I was getting frustrated.
But that’s just where her piece started to change. After asking her son if he used it, he replied, “All the time. It is polite.” In the end, after listening to her son and examining the words origins, she changed her mind about the use of ma’am.
I was pleased. But part of me still felt annoyance at the HuffPo’s choice of title. The “m-word”? I understand the logic…reel them in by suggesting a new “unsayable,” even worse, an “unprintable.” What a gimmick. [edit: I have since learned the term for this is called click bait].
Ronna Benjamin, thank you. I appreciate your effort to understand and your willingness to change your mind. I’m curious as to how ma’am acquired the connotation of “old.”
HuffPo…keep this stuff up and you might become my own h-word.
© 2013 Jay P Laughlin