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February 6, 2013
It’s happening a little more often. And, I don’t mean the rogue white hairs popping up in my part between trips to see my hair stylist. I mean that I am being ma’am-ed. It happened at the grocery store last week—”Ma’am, would you like help out?” It happened at the gas station, too—”Thank you, ma’am,” when I handed the attendant my debit card.
To be clear, I’m not offended by the word “ma’am.” By all accounts, including the definition in the Oxford English Dictionary, it is a term of respect for a married woman. “Ma’am” is essentially a slang form of the word “madam” and has appeared in English literature since the 17th Century. In the U.S., “Yes, ma’am” and “Yes, sir” are traditional ways of showing respect, especially in the South and by those serving in the military.Yet, when you’ve been called by your first name and that is pretty much it your entire life, it is a bit of shock to be given a new title. I’ve been married for eight years, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone call me “Mrs. Weisensee,” though I’ve occasionally seen it written on a wedding invitation. So, when I hear “ma’am” directed my way, I find it amusing. I feel like looking over my shoulder to see which respectable, older woman the person is addressing. Me, a “ma’am”?
Here in Oregon in 2010, “ma’am” does seem a bit old-fashioned, not that there is anything wrong with that. After all, when people say “ma’am” or “sir,” they are usually doing it when they don’t know the person’s name. Such as, “Ma’am, you dropped your glove.” What’s the alternative? “Hey you! You dropped your glove.” “Lady, you dropped your glove.”
These days, even “Mr.” and “Mrs.” are used less frequently. These titles represent a level of respect for each other that seems to be endangered in the casual and abbreviated Digital Age. Perhaps we should hang on to them while we still can.
If someone wants to “ma’am” me now and then, I’m not going to protest. Who am I to argue with tradition? Who am I to squash some polite person’s attempt to show me, apparently a person now deserving of the word “ma’am,” a little respect? Who knows, maybe I will even get used to hearing it.
### Erika Weisensee, a writer and native Oregonian, lives in Milwaukie and teaches journalism and communication courses at the University of Portland.
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