Though I grew up mainly around New York, I currently live about sixty miles west of the former capital of the Confederacy. This is an area where too often – unfortunately – old habits die hard. Usually old bad habits. Things like maintaining a slaveholder mentality, us versus them, a huge sense of entitlement, Civil War flags on pick-up trucks, and regarding newcomers with more than a jaundiced eye.
A friend’s story: She’d moved to this area with her husband and infant daughter, decided to take a break from unpacking boxes, so she found the stroller, inserted her daughter, and rolled out to face the new neighborhood, where 1930s houses gave onto a tree-lined street complete with sidewalk. Up they walked past the next three homes, and waved to an elderly man seated on his porch. He greeted her, she explained they’d just moved in – pointed to the right house – and gave all evidence of being an intelligent, lovely addition to the community.
“And who are your family, dear?” the man asked.
Well, just the three of them, she and her husband and this wonderful little girl –
No, no, no . . . who were her ancestors?
She’d grown up in New York City. As far as this man was concerned, she had no ancestors.
So it’s especially distressing to report the demise of a respectful, useful Southern word: ma’am.
I was once at lunch with several people, including a woman in her fifties with her mother-in-law, a matriarch of seventy-plus. The 50-year-old ma’amed her m-i-l something fierce, and no one except me blinked.
Ma’am used to be the way people of all sorts – especially men and children – ended their sentences when speaking to women over, say, thirty. “Yes, ma’am.” “Be right with you, ma’am.” “Pull over behind that red truck, ma’am.”
These days? Hon. Sweetie. Dear. Little lady. Young lady. And every possible combination.
Frankly, I hate it. These men (it’s mostly men, though last week a teenage female cashier kept addressing me as “honey” until I told her to stop) are all old enough to know better, and if I were male, you can bet your bottom dollar they’d be calling me sir. But show up female? Not a chance.
Ma’am. Such a useful word, such a benefit to the community. We’ll miss her.