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</head> Listen up, Ma’am; it’s courtesy
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Updated: 04/21/2013 08:00:02AM

Listen up, Ma’am; it’s courtesy

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S.L. Frisbie

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A couple of weeks ago, while wasting time on the Internet that I could have been more productively using to take a nap, I ran across an article about a word never to call a woman.

It was written by a woman, of course, because men have better sense than to wander into that territory.

Except for me.

I realize that one must exercise utmost caution before addressing a woman with either the B-word or the S-word.

You just better know where you stand before calling a woman either Babe or Sweetheart.

But no, the offensive word toward which this woman was addressing her wrath was Ma’am.

Now I have few prejudices and I try to keep them to myself, but right away, I knew this writer had the misfortune not to be from the South. She was clearly a Yankee, quite likely a New Jersey-American.

She declared that she was entirely too young to be addressed as Ma’am, a form of address that she seemed to believe should be reserved for women over the age of 70. Let me tell you from experience, Bubba, the older you get, the more your perspective changes on when old age begins.

I am 72, and still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up.

She took great delight in the dressing down that a female senator had given to a four-star general for addressing her as Ma’am instead of Senator.

Were the aforesaid lawmaker more attuned to such things, she would know that in the armed forces, flag officers (that’s generals and admirals) are more commonly addressed as Sir (and increasingly often, as Ma’am) than by rank.

I am not certain why, but I suspect it is because Sir and Ma’am are considered less deferential than General or Admiral. (When addressing the person by name, the form is General Washington or Admiral Jackson, just as in Senator Whatshername.)

When I was a kid, just before the discovery of electricity and during the early development of the wheel, children were expected to address those in authority (a category that extended from parents to milkmen) as Sir or Ma’am.

This was particularly the case in disciplinary exchanges, as in “S.L., you have exactly five seconds to get your dirty clothes off the floor and into the laundry!”

Such a command automatically generated an immediate “Yes Ma’am!” (since your father really wouldn’t care and probably wouldn’t notice where you left your dirty clothes).

Today, one seldom hears Sir and Ma’am from anyone born after the perfection of microwaveable popcorn.

One might trace the beginning of the overall decline in America’s moral values to the fading of those words from our everyday discourse.


(S. L. Frisbie is retired. When he got out of the active Army in 1964, he swore he would never address another man as Sir. That changed the day that Clyde Gibson, one of Bartow’s most prominent citizens and one of the most influential insurance agents in the Southeast, a man the age of S.L’s grandfather, addressed him as Sir. It put the whole Southern hospitality thing in a new perspective.)

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