The simple address can be loaded with meaning — and it may surprise you
Not very long after I stopped getting carded at the LCBO (later than most, I would dearly like to think) was when the ma’ams began.
It was genuinely confusing, at first. I would glance over my shoulder, half-believing the cashier or TTC fare collector or postal worker was wishing a great day to someone else — perhaps a stranger, perhaps my mother, perhaps a stately Rosedale-dwelling dowager in orthotics and pearls.
But no. These ma’ams were directed at me, most certainly. Seemingly overnight, I had transitioned from miss to ma’am. From crayons to perfume. It was the linguistic equivalent of entering my Carlsberg years.
It feels like a title I have not yet earned. To me, a ma’am is a wife, a mother, a homeowner and quite possibly menopausal. Ma’am carries the weight and wonder of rich life experience. Within it lies a certain immutable strength. Also, it’s a palindrome.
It doesn’t take a language expert to know that ma’am is short for “madam,” from the French “madame” (thanks for everything, Duolingo!) But when did addressing women as ma’am become a thing? I asked Aaron J. Dinkin, an assistant professor of linguistics at the University of Toronto, for a bit of context:
“The earliest example of ‘ma’am’ the OED lists come from a 1671 play by (John) Dryden, in which a character says ‘Madam me no Madam, but learn to retrench your words; and say ma’am … as other ladies’ women do,’” Dinkin writes via email. “It looks like at that time ‘ma’am’ was new enough that it was still considered relatively slangy and satirizable. So it probably originated and became popular in England sometime in the mid-17th century.”
“Madame” is technically used to address married women in the French language, however. Does that mean that these people ma’am-ing me are assuming that I’m a married woman? Not necessarily.
The Oxford English Dictionary states that ma’am is “a term of respectful or polite address used for” any and all of the following:
1) Female royalty
2) A female officer in the police or armed forces who is senior to the speaker
3) A woman
I’m not in the police or armed forces and Prince Harry has yet to return my calls, so the first two definitions aren’t a clear fit. I am, however, a woman, so these people have been well within their bounds to address me as ma’am.
When I gave the ol’ Oxford English Dictionary once-over to “miss,” I came across something surprising. The standard definition was there, but there was also this: “A girl or young woman, especially one regarded as silly or headstrong.”
This definition imbues the word with so much more than the dewy youthful associations I have with it. It speaks to frivolity, a certain foolhardiness, even. Miss has transformed into a ridiculous young woman who snaps daily selfies, chugs pumpkin spice lattes and uses hashtags like #bored, #namaste and #bieberfever. A ma’am strikes me as a sophisticated, accomplished, opinionated, well-read woman of the world who long ago realized that flats trump high heels in every conceivable scenario (sole exceptions: presidential nomination, presidential victory speech) and that 10:30 p.m. is an optimal bedtime.
Although I’m gingerly easing into the skin of a ma’am, I suspect I won’t miss miss.
Sofi Papamarko is a writer and matchmaker who lives in Toronto. Reach her at facebook.com/sofipapamarko