How 'ma'am' went from being a respectful word for some -- but polarizing for others
By Janelle Davis, CNN
(CNN) -- An unexpected rainstorm. A traffic jam on your morning commute. Realizing you forget to put on deodorant.
There are many things that can turn your day from good to bad. But there is one thing you're probably not thinking about.
Being called "ma'am."
I was completely unaware of how much women were outraged by this word until it started getting directed at me as I hit my mid-20s. Like the first time you aren't carded at the bar, I remember being called "ma'am" by a waiter and realizing, "Yes, he is talking to me." As someone from Seattle, this term sounded foreign and out of place. It was like society had decided without my permission that my youth was behind me.
It's an identity shift when you realize people look at you and no longer see a young person. I'm no longer that innocent kid who plays soccer, enjoys summer off and is told "the world is your oyster." Now, I work the daily grind, get back pain and look forward to a night in watching documentaries.
It all sort of sneaks up on you. When I hear "ma'am," I feel my youthful privileges slipping away -- like the assumptions that you're interesting, open-minded and up-to-date on the latest trends (I admit, like anyone who's not in their early 20s, I struggle to keep up with Gen-Z fashion).
"It rattled me the first time I was called ma'am," one 23-year-old shared on Reddit. "I thought I wasn't quite old enough for that yet."
"I address people as 'sir'. That's respectful, but not 'ma'am.' It sounds old, and that's coming from me who's about to turn 60," said Gary Petersen, a doorman in New York City.
Kacia Woldridge, who works in the food and beverage industry, said she remembers a woman in Southern California "who was openly offended and angrily corrected the employee -- 'ma'am is for my mother, not me.'"
"My waitress (who is visibly younger than me) called me a 'ma'am.' Excuse me, did you just say 'botox' or 'ma'am'? They both sound the same," joked Christina Becerra on Twitter.
There's no definitive age when a "miss" becomes a "ma'am," but women take note when they start to hear the shift.
"Ma'am" is generally considered to be a polite term to address a woman, but depending on the region or context, it can mean the exact opposite.
It comes from the French word for "my lady" (ma dame), which in English turned into "madam" and then "ma'am" by the 1600s, according to Merriam-Webster. This pronunciation change happened at a time when American English was trying to differentiate itself from British English, explained Kelly Elizabeth Wright, experimental sociolinguist and lexicographer at Virginia Tech.
"Madam" (or "madame" in French) is traditionally used to refer to a married woman and unmarried women were called "mademoiselle" meaning "young lady" -- the equivalent to "miss." The French government banned the word "mademoiselles" from official usage in 2012. The decision was celebrated by feminists noting that men of all ages only have one label, "monsieur," so women should also have just one neutral label.
But the English words "miss" and "ma'am" have hung around. Today, when some women hear "ma'am," instead of envisioning an elegant French lady, they picture a woman past her prime.
"You can't control how people see you, but you have a right to assert how you'd like to be seen," said Wright, who notes that she is trying to use the word less after discovering many hear it as offensive and not inclusive. "The only way these things move forward is through constant reassertion."
'Ma'am' has taken on new meanings
Historically, female youth is connected to all kinds of privileged social attributes -- beauty, fertility and marriageability. If these attributes represent a subjective peak of femininity, the less young a woman is, the less compelling her social standing.
When a woman is called "ma'am," even by a well-meaning stranger, it can send a specific and unwanted social message.
In a 1970 episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," entitled "Today I am a Ma'am," Moore's character Mary Richards is shocked and bewildered when a young man at her office calls her "ma'am."
"This kid, no he wasn't even a kid, he must have been 21 or 22 years old, and he comes over to me and he calls me 'ma'am,'" she says.
Richards' first "ma'am" also happens to coincide with her 30th birthday, further linking the term to the specter of aging. She feels ashamed for hitting the milestone without a husband by her side and goes on a date with a 40-something man. All in all, it's a bit misogynistic by today's standards.
"Ma'am" is considered an age-graded term by sociolinguists and dialectologists, which means how the speaker's use of the word changes as they age.
Wright said "ma'am" is a more common term among older generations. Because times change, along with word meanings, it's not hard to imagine "ma'am" carries a different context among younger generations.
She said her students also associate the word with bygone areas of nobility and gentry.
"I've heard from students that when they hear it, they feel like people are being manipulative, like people are trying to sell them something," said Wright about the younger generation's perception of "ma'am." "I do not think people read these terms with the respect register at all."
The main way Wright sees the word used by younger people -- in person and on TikTok -- is in a comedic, ironic manner. In these cases, it's tossed at people to put them in their place and reset the conversation.
Men have a ma'am too
Women aren't alone in rejecting certain terms that were originally meant to be respectful. "Sir," typically used as a respectful form of address for men, is another word that doesn't always go over well.
In fact, men mention some familiar reasons for being alarmed by the term.
"For me, it's way too formal and I feel like it makes me feel old when someone says that to me. Like I rather someone say 'hey dude' or 'what's up bro' than call me 'sir,'" said one 25-year-old man on Reddit. "It's my biggest pet peeve."
"Young dude working in the building called me 'sir,' and I did the (reflexive) old dude 'oh man, don't call me sir I'm a regular dude' thing old people do," Chad Stanton wrote on Twitter.
But given that there's simply one catch-all word for men, the term doesn't carry the same baggage as "ma'am."
When 21-year-old Virginia Tech student Ethan Leinberger was first called "sir," he said, "It made me feel like I was respected ... I'm sure as I actually get older it'll start to make me feel old though."
Molli Reyese, a hostess at a Mexican restaurant in New York City, said she uses "sir" all the time and never hears a complaint, but she refuses to use "ma'am." She looked dumbfounded at the idea of addressing a woman as "ma'am."
It's hard to navigate terms of respect linked to age, gender and marital status with strangers. Most often people gravitate toward "miss," "ma'am" and "sir" when working in customer service where there's a power asymmetry between the speaker and subject.
When communication isn't face-to-face, such terms become a gauntlet of possible faux pas, from misgendering someone to simply not being able to read their receptiveness.
Unfortunately, English leaves us with few alternatives. There isn't a common world of respect from one human to another that side steps gender -- and for women, side steps age.
What are we supposed to say? "Your excellency?"
Where 'ma'am' is still embraced
Of course, not everyone has such a complicated relationship with the term. In some cultures and regions, a form of respectful address is expected in most social situations, and the intention of such terms are generally understood.
One such region is the American South.
"It's still part of the politeness norms that kids learn when they are growing up," said Jennifer Cramer, professor of linguistics at the University of Kentucky who specialized in regional identity.
As the comedy series "It's a Southern Thing" puts it: "In the South, if it's female and has a pulse, you're legally required to call it 'ma'am."
Linguists also point out that "ma'am" is also commonly used in Black communities.
"Black people are linguist innovators," said Rachel Elizabeth Weissler, faculty in linguistics, psychology, and Black studies at the University of Oregon.
Weissler notes that some of the modern ways we use "ma'am" began in these communities.
If not ma'am, then what?
With the layered meanings and regional uses of ma'am, it's important to remember language says more about the speaker than the recipient. So if you're hit by a stray "ma'am" or "sir," it helps to take a step back.
"Pay attention to the context because context matters," said Cramer. "Someone using 'ma'am' may not be choosing 'ma'am' in a way that's supposed to be derogatory. They may be. But you need to read between the lines to see what's actually happening."
Weissler adds, "It's not necessarily what you say, but how you're saying it."
For those who feel like "ma'am" is too old and "miss" is diminutive, implying the subject is childlike, then maybe it's time for a new word entirely.
Blogger Kristen Hansen Brakeman suggests "we bring back the antiquated Victorian term, 'M'Lady... M'Lady is sort of sweet and elegant sounding too, isn't it?"
If all the "ma'am" talk seems like much ado about nothing, Wright points out that language is a huge part of how we see the world and how the world sees us.
"We use language continuously every moment of our lives. We use it so much that we don't notice it. It's in our dreams. It forms our thoughts. It's continuously present with us. So, a single word really matters. It really shapes the way we move through the world."
The next time you hear a "ma'am," try not to let it ruin your day. I plan to smile and say, "it's Janelle."
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