Sir and Ma’am

Father David Epps's picture

I recently took a bit of flak for my article on “incivility.” A small part of my column on the subject included, “People who don’t say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ or ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am.’”

While no one objected to my insisting that saying “please” and “thank you” were marks of civility, there were those who felt that I had gone too far in including the terms “sir” and “ma’am.”

One college professor told my wife that, when she moved from the West, she was insulted, at first, when Southern college students called her “ma’am.”

Recently, a customer at the Atlanta Bread Company told me that her sister got into trouble at school for refusing to call the teacher “ma’am” when her family moved to the South years ago.

Another lady wrote me and shared, “I was 35 when we moved from Boston to Seneca S.C., and quite attractive at the time. Can you imagine what being called “ma’am” did to my first encounter with Southern gentlemen and children? It was truly disconcerting.”

One gentleman wrote, “Have you ever been outside the South? I’m sure you have, and that you must know that the South is the ONLY section of the country where those niceties are commonly used. We grew up in New England, and never heard anyone say them until we moved to Virginia soon after we married.

“We never taught our children to use them, but since they were schooled in the South, they were taught to use them in school. It became second nature to them, and we were comfortable with it. I will match my manners to yours anytime, but regionalism differs in various regions, and I am insulted that you think we are ‘uncivilized.’”

Well, it was not my intention to insult anyone or to disparage other regions but, contrary to modern usage, the terms “sir” and “ma’am” were once as common in the United States as “please” and “thank you.”

“Ma’am” is short for “Madame,” which is derived from the French and literally signifies, “my Lady.” “Sir,” which is derived from Middle French, comes from “messier,” which means “my Lord.” The English, of course, used the word “Sir” for knights, as in Sir Lancelot.

In England, in ye olden days, if I correctly recall, “Sir” and “Lady” were terms reserved for those of a higher status. In Early America, however, men and women were commonly referred to by one another using these two terms. In America, in theory, everyone was equal. In America, everybody was a “sir” or a “lady.”

One European, in fact, was aghast that during his trip to America he observed that common people regularly referred to one another with those terms. In America, it seemed, even those of ignoble birth were deserving of respect and dignity, hence the use of the terms.

If one reads the writings of educated people from the early years of our country onward through the nineteenth century, one discovers that, in all of America, not just in the South, “sir” and “ma’am” were common terms of civility used both in private and in public. Where and when that part of the American culture first began to decline and disintegrate, I cannot say.

When I visited Kenya and Uganda in 1998, I tried to learn what the gestures and words of respect were appropriate so that I would not come across as another “ugly American.” I wanted to be seen as respectful toward the Kenyan and Ugandan people. Not one of them took offense that I desired, according to the terms of their own culture, to treat them with dignity.

If “sir” and “ma’am” are terms used only in the South today, then I am proud that Southerners have continued that long-held American tradition, even when other regions of the country have let the terms pass quietly into history.

So, when someone from the South calls you “sir” or “ma’am,” or refers to you as a “lady,” the intent is not to insult or embarrass. It is our attempt to accord you the respect and dignity that we believe you are due, regardless of who you are or from whence you came.

We say “sir” and we say “ma’am,” and if you aren’t into that ... well, God bless you, anyway.

[Father David Epps is the founding pastor of Christ the King Church, 4881 Hwy. 34 E., Sharpsburg, GA 30277, between Peachtree City and Newnan, and serves as a bishop to Georgia and Tennessee. Services are held Sundays at 8 and 10 a.m. Fr. Epps is also the vicar of Christ the King Church in Champaign, IL. He may be contacted at The church has a website at]

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Submitted by sageadvice on Mon, 05/19/2008 - 7:01pm.

call me by my first name since that is what their parents told them to do! I don't object since to do so would be demanding respect for me---that doesn't work.

What I find Is the lack of use and more objectionable more than the four words the reverend likes is the total disrespect for others time, meals, and property by children. No supervision is given by the parents in these areas---anyway effective supervision.

It is not the cost or value of those items destroyed, or the irritation, that is the problem, it is the fact that such behavior will only get worse as they grow! Others will suffer it for small children but will not for big kids and teenagers---and particularly young adults.

I really think eye contact and a smile have replaced "thank you," "please," "sir," and "Madame."

Isn't it terrible when a young person hands you your food or change at the drive through window, and they have their back to you talking to someone else---they don't know how much you are having to reach for that stuff, and don't much care. Supervisor tries not to notice also!

Maybe adults have become so gross that kids really don't know any better! (Ever had the dancers and grinders in front of you at The Fred?)

Submitted by sdforsb on Sat, 05/17/2008 - 4:37am.

I was raised in the 1950's in Minnesota. Because a Madame was a woman that ran a brothel, my using the term Ma’am would typically result in physical discipline.

simpleton's picture
Submitted by simpleton on Fri, 05/16/2008 - 8:08pm.

It would be a wonderful world if Americans once again became Lords and Ladies.
In all manners of speaking.

I'm an ex-Minnesotan, too. I'll take "Sir", "Ma'am" and warmer weather over mosquitoes, lutefisk and ten months of blizzards any day.

carbonunit52's picture
Submitted by carbonunit52 on Fri, 05/16/2008 - 8:17pm.

Until this very day,hour,and minute, I did not know about lutefisk. And I thought our homemade wine was bad.

simpleton's picture
Submitted by simpleton on Fri, 05/16/2008 - 9:56pm.

I am proud to announce that, having spent a large portion of my life a vegetarian, I have never actually eaten lutefisk. I have, however, smelled it, as many Minnesotan families have lutefisk parties. (Something I'm not sure I understand, unless there is a regional sense of humor that I missed out on). They would say, in their amusing accents (another bad habit I avoided while living there) "Don't knock it till you try it."
Things that smell that way are not worth trying.
What homemade wine?

carbonunit52's picture
Submitted by carbonunit52 on Fri, 05/16/2008 - 10:24pm.

I grew up on a farm in PA, in an Italian American family, drinking the wine that was made from grapes and every fruit around, both wild and domesticated. It was not very sophisticated stuff, but the price was right.

simpleton's picture
Submitted by simpleton on Fri, 05/16/2008 - 11:10pm.

perhaps your stomach lining?
I recall a time my mother attempted to make rhubarb wine, as we had a healthy growth of rhubarb in our yard. (Common in the North, I believe.) No wine resulted from the attempt, but for a while there we had a gallon of fermented, oozing sludge that probably could have taken the skin off a cat. (One of the 101 ways they didn't tell you about.)

carbonunit52's picture
Submitted by carbonunit52 on Fri, 05/16/2008 - 8:16pm.


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