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The Queen of My Self

The following article by Natalie Angier appeared in the New York Times last month. It certainly struck a chord in me. Or should I say, a sore point?

Just Don’t Call Me …
By Natalie Angier

Classes are now underway at Pennsylvania State University, and Judith Kroll, a professor of psychology, linguistics and women’s studies, will soon be greeting her undergraduate students with the usual brief spiel. “I get up and say, you can call me Dr. Kroll, or professor, or Judith if you like, but do not call me Mrs.,” she said. “I am not Mrs. Kroll. I kept my name when I got married and my husband kept his name.”

There is one other honorific that Dr. Kroll dislikes and that she dearly wishes she could bar from the classroom: ma’am. Whenever a student says, “Yes ma’am” or “Is that going to be on the test, ma’am?” Dr. Kroll says she cringes and feels weird. Yet because ma’am, unlike Mrs., isn’t factually incorrect, Dr. Kroll resists the urge to scold. “My first take has got to be, this person is just trying to be polite,” she sighed.

Another day, another ma’am-ogram: you may not want it; it may make you feel flattened, desexualized, overripe and nearly through; but trust me, ma’am, we’re doing it all for you.

There are weightier problems in the world. Still, if you’re a woman born any time before the Clinton administration, chances are you’ve been called ma’am on more than one occasion — by solicitous waiters asking whether you were “Done working on that, ma’am?” and hovering store clerks wondering if they can “help you find anything, ma’am,” and traffic cops telling you to “Move your car, ma’am, this isn’t a parking lot,” and the perky, hardworking fellows at the farmers’ market who see you week after week but will always cram so many ma’ams into every transaction that you realize there’s no turning back, you’ve been ma’amed for life.

Ma’am is, of course, a contraction of madam, and its usage varies by region. Southerners and Midwesterners will ma’am with greater frequency than do the residents on the East and West Coasts, said Deborah Tannen, author of “You Just Don’t Understand” and a linguistics professor at Georgetown. “You’re more likely to hear ma’am when somebody is annoyed.”

In theory, ma’am is a courtesy term, meant to convey respect and graciousness lightly salted with deference. Yet much evidence suggests that when it comes to fomenting a sense of good will ma’am fails even more spectacularly than “Have a nice day.”

Certainly in popular culture, many female characters rebel against the ma’am tag. In the mordant, high-end medical soap, “Nurse Jackie,” when a policeman struggling to help subdue a disturbed patient made the mistake of referring to Edie Falco’s eponymous character as “ma’am,” Nurse Jackie shot back, “So help me God, do not call me ma’am — uncuff him!”

Helen Mirren, playing Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison on the crime series “Prime Suspect” told her male subordinate: “Listen, I like to be called governor or the boss. I don’t like ma’am. I’m not the bloody queen, so take your pick.” To which came the inevitable answer, “Yes, ma’am, anything you say.”

In the premier episode of “Star Trek: Voyager,” Kate Mulgrew as Capt. Kathryn Janeway informed a young male ensign that “ma’am is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer captain,” and when, a few moments later, the ensign called her ma’am, the captain retorted, “It’s not crunch time yet — I’ll let you know when.”

Coming tomorrow is Part 2.

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The Queen welcomes questions concerning all issues of interest to women in their mature years. Send your inquiries to thequeenofmyself@aol.com.

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