I live in the Deep South.  Okay, I live in Florida, but contrary to what many snowbirds, reformed-Yankees, and other newly-minted Floridians seem to think, much of Florida is inhabited by proud Southerners whose ancestors settled this state and put it on the map through ranching and farming.  Now that our pioneering ancestors have transformed this swamp land into the glorious Sunshine State, droves of transplants from the frozen North and parts beyond have flooded into Florida to live, to enjoy our beaches, and to visit one of our ubiquitous theme parks.  Once they arrive, they unpack their bags, take in the fresh air, and promptly go about the business of rejecting our Southern heritage.

An integral part of being a Southerner, of course, is having Southern manners.  When I was growing up in the sticks, surrounded by mossy oak trees and cattle, my mother and father taught me the importance of saying “ma’am” and “sir” as a sign of respect.  This was not a quaint but optional turn of phrase; it was mandatory.  To refer to a teacher or parent or adult as anything other than ma’am or sir was tantamount to blasphemy.  You might as well address your pastor as “dude” and call your school principal by his childhood nickname Sparky.  So when my mother would call out for me, I did not respond with a snarky “WHAT?!” as many kids do today.  When my teacher asked me whether I had completed my homework assignment, I didn’t respond with a “yeah” or a “nope” like I was speaking to my kid sister.  A crisp yes or no, followed by ma’am was in order.

Like my mother before me, I have diligently tried to instill in my children the importance of saying ma’am and sir.  I admit that it has been an uphill battle.  Many of my female friends (transplants all) think it’s antiquated.  Some of them go so far as insisting that they not be called ma’am because they consider it derogatory.  Well, I’m here to set the record straight.  Ma’am is not some pejorative slang of the inbred masses.  Ma’am is a contraction of the word madam.  In Britain, ma’am is pronounced “mahm” or “muhm,” and it is used as a title of respect, especially when addressing female royalty.  When addressing the Queen of England, one must first address her as “Your Majesty,” and then only as “ma’am.”  Similar to ma’am, but not as reverential, are the titles dame, gentlewoman, and lady.  In the United States, Britain, and Canada, ma’am is used to address female officers of esteemed military rank.  Ma’am or Madam is the highest title of respect one can bestow on a woman — Madam Justice, Madam Speaker, Madam Secretary, Madam President.   In the case of a very young woman, girl, or unmarried woman who prefers to be addressed as such, “miss” is an appropriate ma’am equivalent, but in the South, ma’am denotes any female, no matter her age or position.  Still feel insulted, ladies?

Tellingly, I have never heard of a man feeling sullen and combative for being called “sir.”  That would be inane.  Clearly, the disdain for ma’am is a women’s issue, not a cultural one, which says more about the person who is offended than the person who is just being polite.  I would venture to guess that women who hate being referred to as ma’am are the same women who refuse to disclose their age and become depressed on their birthdays.   To those women, I say with all due respect and sisterly affection, buck up!  It’s not about you or how old you are or how you consider yourself exempt from trite Southern labels.  It’s about respect, so deal with it.  We will not sacrifice our manners or relegate hundreds of years of tradition to the dustbin of history to appease your vanity.

Many years ago, I had a substitute teacher who scolded me for calling her ma’am.  Visibly, displeased, she demanded, “Would you please stop calling me ‘ma’am’?  I don’t like it and consider it rude and offensive.”  Sheepishly, I looked down to the ground and whispered, “Yes, ma’am.”