A recent CNN story revealed young women—and many older ones–hate being addressed as “ma’am.” All y’all say “Duh.” The timing of the story was odd since the network is still dealing with fallout from host Don Lemon’s boneheaded declaration that presidential hopeful Nikki Haley, 51, is “not in her prime.” Which is worse than 50 bazillion “ma’ams” if you ask me. Demonstrating the agricultural truism “the more you stir it, the more it smells,” Lemon calmly mansplained to a gobsmacked audience “a woman is in her prime in her 20s, 30s and maybe 40s.” Maaaybeeeee. This fool.
The only good thing to come of Don Lemon’s dustup with womankind (aside from his forced sensitivity training which I hope came with zero pee breaks) is my recurring dream in which I meet Lemon, 56, and conclude our conversation about Putin, climate change and whatnot with “Nice talkin’ to you Pops.”
Being called “ma’am” can happen when you’re having a perfectly nice day, reported CNN’s Jannelle Davis. Amen, sister. I was first ma’am’ed by an elderly female cashier at Piggly Wiggly when I was still in high school.
You never forget your first time.
It broke my heart a little not because it made me feel old but because it was said with deference I totally did not deserve. I imagine this cashier had been told to treat every customer as if they were somehow superior even if the customer was a silly, pimply high school senior awkwardly trying to buy a pack of Vantage menthols. For instance.
The use of “ma’am” denotes deep respect for female older relatives, schoolteachers, choir directors and such so, yes, I did a doubletake. Ma’am?
I had no idea people used “ma’am” outside the South so the CNN story was something of a shock. Turns out women are being “ma’am’ed” in cities across the country and, despite its origin as a less-fussy version of “madam,” being “ma’am’ed,” said CNN, doesn’t conjure the image of an elegant French woman so much as a (uh-oh) “woman past her prime.” OK, can we agree to send this phrase back to the cave wall it belongs on and never use it again? Pretty please?
My generation was taught to use “ma’am” with a disproportionate ferocity. For example, let’s say you’d just been given a birthday present by a family friend and you smiled and said: “Thank you!” Listen to me. Your mama could be in another COUNTY, but she would somehow hear this substandard response and spring like a cheetah into the room, spin you around by your bony shoulders and say: “Thank you WHO?” and you would hang your head and say, “Thank you, ma’am.”
When Yankee cousins visited and responded to “Would you like more butterbeans?” with “Yeah,” they were…educated.
Today, there are some who use the word “ma’am”—spat out at a particular target– as a socially acceptable form of the “b” word. This is shameful unless I’m the one doing it in which case y’all know I’ve got my reasons. In fact, modern linguists have noted “ma’am” is showing up on TikTok as a coded way to “b word” a demanding customer.
Dressing on the side? (Sneer) “Yes, MA’AM!!!”
The problem with “ma’am” seems to be the English language doesn’t have many options. Davis writes: “There’s no common word of respect from one human to another that sidesteps age for women. What are we supposed to say, “Your Excellency?”
Just imagine the pep in your step if you take your car for an oil change and the attendant responds with, “Right away, Your Majesty!”
Others have suggested, perhaps with tongue in cheek, we revisit “M’lady,” but, honestly, I see no need for the gender intrusion. Majesty? Excellency? In this world of shifting personal pronouns, they’re pretty much perfect.