A newspaper crossword puzzle offered the clue “Polite refusal to a lady,” for which the answer was NO MA’AM. But you’d better be forewarned that calling a woman “ma’am” is not always a good idea. Senator Barbara Boxer reproved a general for calling her that at a Washington hearing. Writer Jill Soloway dislikes it because it makes her feel “fat and old, like an elderly aunt.” Natalie Angier did a long article in The New York Times cataloguing myriad objections to “ma’am.”
I was brought up—in the misleadingly named Beaumont, Texas (there is no mountain there, let alone a beautiful one)—to say “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” to all adult women. It is a custom that I still follow, as do many men, particularly those reared in the South.
“Ma’am,” of course, is a contraction of madam, a term of respect originally used by servants for their mistresses. It’s from the French madame, “my lady,” originally from the Latin mea domina, or “my mistress of the house.” Lady, incidentally, is from Old English hlaefdige, meaning “one who kneads the dough,” a term Anglo-Saxons used for a female head of a household. (Such breadwinners may well have needed lots of dough.)
The Oxford English Dictionary says that ma’am was formerly the ordinary respectful form of address to a woman of equal or superior rank or station, but now it is usually confined to the speech of servants or other persons of markedly inferior position. I guess they mean me.
In England the Queen and royal princesses are addresses as ma’am, after their initial appellation of “Your Majesty” or “Your Royal Highness.” The word is correctly pronounced, just as in this country, to rhyme with “spam”—although many Brits say it to rhyme with “bomb” or “bum.”
In her Times piece, Angier points out that defenders of ma’am include Miss Manners, who regards it as a polite and dignified form of address. But Angier conducted a survey of her women pals and found that of the 27 who responded, 2 said they liked being called ma’am, 10 didn’t care one way or the other, and 15 disliked it.
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou doesn’t care what you call him, as long as you don’t call him out.
The road to transgression has been smoothed with macadam,
Ever since Eve brought temptation to Adam.
This path to perdition
Includes the transition
Of a genteel Madame to degenerate madam.