Dear Ace: I hail from New York City, where we reserve the word “ma’am” for women over 60. I’ve noticed that in Charlottesville, pretty much any female can be “ma’am.” Why the difference?—Thea Soros
Thea: If that’s the only difference you noticed between New York City and Charlottesville, Ace suggests you pay a little less attention to the “ma’ams” of this world and, jeez, go for a walk or something. Nevertheless, nothing revs a reporter’s engine like word usage notes, so Ace decided to do some digging.
Ace turned to the wordsmith’s bible: The Oxford English Dictionary, which has definitions, etymologies, and earliest-found examples of every word from “aal” to “Zyrian.” Don’t be embarrassed if your puny dictionary begins at “aardvark” and ends on “zygote”; this is the OED we’re talking about, a 20-volume monster that retails for over a 1,000 bucks and will test the shelf strength of even the heartiest of bookcases. After amusing himself by researching the etymology of words like “crunk,” Ace got down to business. Sort of. Ace bets you didn’t know that one of the OED’s definitions listed under “ma’am” is “c. wham, bam, thank you ma’am: see WHAM-BAM adv.,” or that a “thank-you-ma’am” is an old-fashioned (as in, before cars) word for a bump in the road that jostles a rider, much like…well, you can probably figure out the rest.
Apparently, “ma’am” was once the “respectful form of address to a woman of superior rank or station,” and it’s still used that way in England to refer pretty much exclusively to the queen. It’s only used in the informal sense you’re talking about in the United States and South Africa. Ace isn’t so sure about any usage differences in Johannesburg versus Cape Town, but as for the New York-Charlottesville distinction, it’s just one of those Southern hospitality things. In the Colonial days, Americans held onto a lot of the old English forms of address, but without a nobility to hang them on, they entered more general use. “Ma’am” became a polite way to refer to any woman who looked to be of marryin’ age, and the South is nothing if not polite. Contrasted with the typical New York use (“Ma’am, the subway isn’t designed for that!”), it becomes pretty clear why any female high school grad can be called “ma’am” down here. Now if you’ll excuse Ace, he’s got some dirty words to look up.