Perhaps it is because school is starting back and we’re being introduced to new people, but twice this week I’ve heard a parent say that their child does not say “yes ma’am” or “no ma’am” because they, the parents, find the word “ma’am” to be offensive, irritating, or “frustrating”. I’d like to take a look at that this morning.
Let me state first that I don’t think that NOT saying “ma’am” is rude. I was raised to say it, and I will raise my children to say it, but I know some of the nicest people in the world and they’ve never said “ma’am” or “sir” after yes or no. They simply say “yes” or “no”, and I am fine with that.
What I want to explore is this idea that people who say “ma’am” are being rude and insensitive. The idea that adding “ma’am” is a way of saying “you’re old”, or some other slight.
I know that this 140 character world has changed things, but words still have meaning. Real meaning, not what we may think they mean. So we’re going to do a little etymology this morning. The word ma’am dates back to the 1660s, a contraction of the word madam.
A noun, Merriam-Webster defines ma’am as:
— used to politely speak to a woman who you do not know
— used to speak to the Queen or to a woman of high rank in the police or military
TheFreeDictionary.com says that ma’am is:
— used as a form of polite address for a woman
Nothing too salacious there. Understanding that words have a dictionary definition and a street definition, I checked with Urban Dictionary to see if there was some use of ma’am that I, a suburban dad that rarely watches anything other than Disney, might not know about.
According to Urban Dictionary, ma’am is:
A shortened version of the word madam, which was formally used when addressing women in the days when etiquette and common courtesy were commonplace.
The term Ma’am is often coupled with the word No, to create the phrase “No Ma’am”, which flows off the tongue very well if you have a Southern US accent.
“In the days when etiquette and common courtesy were commonplace.” Wow.
I think any true Southerner would argue that etiquette and common courtesy never go out of style.
I found nothing in the etymology of the world “ma’am” that pointed to it being a derogatory term. To the contrary, most definitions of the word point to it as being a polite and respectful way to address a woman.
Likewise, the word “madam” is commonly defined as a form of respectful and polite address of a woman. So the creation of the contraction doesn’t seem to have hidden an underlying meaning on which the anti-ma’am party can hang their hats.
I did see an argument that using the word “ma’am” makes a person feel less than equal to the woman they are addressing. That subserviency was used by one blog writer to explain why she wouldn’t allow her children to say “yes ma’am” or “yes sir”. I think that’s a stretch…a big long red gooey stuff coming out of Stretch Armstrong stretch.
By nurture, if not nature, Southerners are very polite bunch. The common theme I found from those that have a distaste for “ma’am” is that they were raised elsewhere and moved to the South. In fact, I know no one from the South that finds the term offensive. There are a lot of people here, and I didn’t check with all of them, so if you know someone that’s from the South who has a disdain for the word “ma’am”, please let me know.
My guess, my completely untested and unproven theory, is that the move to the South wasn’t embraced with open arms, and the person feels some resentment and embarrassment by now having to say “We live in Alabama.” Why else would there be a show about the struggles of a lady from New Jersey trying to adapt to life in Birmingham EIGHT YEARS after her move. Good grief lady, TRY!
Complaining about the heat and humidity doesn’t do much good, so they complain about something else they don’t understand; southern politeness.
Southerners do have a way of politely telling you that you’re wrong, but if you think that it’s by addressing you as “ma’am”, well, bless your heart.