James E. Clapp jeclapp at WANS.NET
Sat Jun 12 00:20:31 UTC 1999

> My grandmother, who was from western Kentucky and would be 95, used to use
> "No Ma'am" and "Yes Ma'am" to both sexes (never "sir") not as terms of
> politeness but to indicate that you were not to question whether she had done
> or had not done something, such as whether the ham in the refrigerator was
> spoiled ("No ma'am") or whether she had remembered to put vanilla in the
> pound cake ("Yes ma'am").  I just wondered whether this comment was just an
> idiosyncrasy of hers or others had heard.

I heard this once or twice from a friend who grew up in Kentucky, but that could
be just a coincidence.  I think I've heard it elsewhere as well; I can even
imagine myself saying it.  Obviously, this "ma'am," though vocative in form,
functions as an intensifier--just like "sirree" in "no, sirree" or "yes, sirree,"
which may be said regardless of the sex of the person one is speaking to.  Come
to think of it, "sir" is used this way too--not to mention the use of "man,"
"boy," and "brother" as more or less gender-neutral interjections.  (The use of
"ma'am" in this way certainly would be counter the usual tendency in English,
wouldn't it.)

James E. Clapp

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