“Ma’am” and Regional Colonialism

By Maeve Maddox - 3 minute read

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Where I come from, children are taught that responding to grownups with a mere “yes” or “no” is impolite. “Yeah” is unforgivably rude. As a child I was taught to say “yes, sir, no, ma’am” and when I grew up, I continued to say it. When I lived in England, women whom I’d addressed as “ma’am” would sometimes smile and tell me that over there “ma’am” was reserved for the queen.

A recent segment on National Public Radio (Sept. 8, 2010) has alerted me to the fact that in some regions of the U.S., women perceive “ma’am”as a put-down. NY Times reporter Natalie Angier apparently wants the honorific wiped out of American speech altogether.

This attack on the use of “ma’am” is an example of what I call regional colonialism.

In every country, the people who live in the major population centers ridicule the speech and manners of those who live in other parts of the same country. Parisians laugh at French southern accents just as much as New Yorkers make fun of southern American speakers. Now that everyone in the country consumes the same news and entertainment media, the continued existence of regional vocabulary and pronunciation is at the mercy of the speakers and writers who control the media.

An example of the media driving out previous southern terminology is that of the word “soda” to mean”soft drink.” When I was young, a “soda” was an ice cream treat. The first time I heard the word “soda” used to mean “cold drink from the vending machine” was in the mouth of a character on Law & Order. Now all grocery stores, North and South, have “soda” aisles where one finds Coke, Dr. Pepper, RC, and other carbonated beverages. (I did notice a fairly recent sign in a local supermarket that listed “soft drinks” on the same sign as “sodas.”)

Angier wrote an article, “The Politics of Polite,” in which she lambastes the use of “ma’am.” She acknowledges that “ma’am” usage varies by region. She even quotes a Georgetown professor:

Southerners and Midwesterners will ma’am with greater frequency than do the residents on the East and West Coasts…

but having made this obligatory nod to regional usage, she goes full steam ahead to argue that nobody should “ma’am” anybody.

In theory, ma’am is a courtesy term, meant to convey respect and graciousness lightly salted with deference. Yet much evidence suggests that when it comes to fomenting a sense of good will ma’am fails even more spectacularly than “Have a nice day.”

The “evidence” Angier presents consists of the results of a “completely unscientific poll” of her own, and the following examples from the media:

Barbara Boxer to Brigadier General Michael Walsh of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who addressed her as “ma’am.” She told the general that she preferred to be called “senator”: “I worked so hard to get that title, so I’d appreciate it…,

Helen Mirren, playing Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison on the crime series Prime Suspect: “Listen, I like to be called governor or the boss. I don’t like ma’am. I’m not the bloody queen, so take your pick.”

Kate Mulgrew as Capt. Kathryn Janeway to a young male ensign: “ma’am is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer captain.”

In each of these examples, the context is a that of a woman asserting her right to a title previously reserved for men. If I were in a gathering in which all the male academics were being called “Dr.” and someone addressed me as “Ms.,” I’d be annoyed too.

Angier’s fourth example from the media of a character who rejects the use of “ma’am” is from a television series called Nurse Jackie:

when a policeman struggling to help subdue a disturbed patient [makes] the mistake of referring to Edie Falco’s eponymous character as “ma’am,” Nurse Jackie [shoots] back, “So help me God, do not call me ma’am — uncuff him!”

According to reviews, Nurse Jackie is an irascible drug-addicted curmudgeon who uses language as a cudgel. I wouldn’t read too much into her objection to “ma’am.”

I have no illusions as to what the outcome of the assault on “ma’am” will be if the East Coast and West Coast media take it up as a cause. A pleasant and civilized idiom native to my region will give way to a more abrupt manner of address that is preferred by those who control the national media.

Meanwhile, I’ll just continue to say “Yes ma’am” to my four-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter so that she’ll acquire the habit. She can deal with regional colonialism when the time comes.

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