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The use of the term sir as a form of address for men, especially those of higher rank or status, is discussed in several prior questions including this one. They all indicate that the term is reserved to males, and that there are a number of related terms for females, such as ma'am.

A review of the first dozen online dictionaries at onelook.com confirms that sir is strictly reserved for male addressees. For example ODO defines it as

used as a polite or respectful way of addressing a man, especially one in a position of authority: excuse me, sir

On several recent television shows in the US, the term sir has been used by a police officer to address his or her supervisor who was female. In the context, the use was sincere and was not objected to by the superior.

Has the use of sir when addressing a superior female in a military or quasi-military setting become acceptable, or is this merely literary license?

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Interesting parenthetical note in Wikipedia: When addressing a male superior (e.g. Officer or Warrant Officer, but not usually a non-commissioned officer, in the military), "sir" is used as a short form of address. (Despite its use in many fictional works, this is not a term used for female superiors, who are addressed as "ma'am"). –  J.R. Aug 6 '13 at 20:52
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Having had some experience with the U.S. Navy, I can assure you that calling a female superior officer "sir" would pretty quickly get you your a** handed to you. "Ma'am" is correct, I assure you. –  John M. Landsberg Aug 6 '13 at 21:02
    
Can you give specific citations of some of these recent TV shows, so we can see the context for ourselves? –  Nate Eldredge Aug 6 '13 at 22:58
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This is not a question about English, but about military (or paramilitary) protocols or etiquette. The answer will vary from organization to organization. –  MετάEd Aug 7 '13 at 1:04
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@JanusBahsJacquet, that reminds me of the Geordie dialect (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, NE England), in which you would address a man as "man" as in "gan canny, man" (meaning "take care") and a woman as "pet". However the "man" has become such an ingrained way of ending a sentence that it's not uncommon to hear "gan canny, pet, man", "gan canny, man, pet" or even "gan canny, man, pet, man". –  Phil M Jones Feb 19 at 14:31

5 Answers 5

As commented by @MετάEd, this seems a question of military etiquette. So allow to me offer this answer based on what I have observed.

I am not a member of the military myself, but I spend a lot of time working at a U.S. military base in a building that houses many male and female members of the military, members of every service (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard), as well as members of the Canadian and Mexican military.

In every case that I have witnessed (where the speakers are using English), women are addressed as "ma'am." Additionally, half of the people answer their phones with a phrase similar to, "Hello this is Private John Doe; how may I help you sir or ma'am?"

As a side note, I wish that my French and Spanish were better so that I could comment on how the users of those languages address each other.

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Sir is for men. Most women would be offended if you called them sir (with the possible exception of some supreme feminists). Like John M. Landsberg commented, "Ma'am" is what you want to use unless you're asking for trouble.

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I don't know any feminists who would advocate a “sir” default. –  Tyler James Young Jan 9 at 20:54
    
Yeah, @Bobo, I think you have profoundly misunderstand extremist feminism. –  Codeswitcher May 28 at 4:01
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How so, @Codeswitcher? Feminists are people who believe women and men have equal rights, yes? Then some of these people might also believe that they should also have equal titles. –  Bobo May 28 at 17:18
    
@Bobo First, there definitely are feminists who want to be addressed as "sir". For instance, the male ones. Secondly you're assuming that the women under discussion would want to achieve "equal" titles by adopting the male one. And more specifically, you're talking about the very subset which spells their sex "womyn" so as not to have "man" in the word: I don't think demanding to be called by a male honorific is likely to be high on their agenda for equality. Why don't you look into it and report back. –  Codeswitcher May 28 at 20:27
    
1. I was obviously talking about women feminists (since I said earlier in the sentence, "most women"). 2. You are generalizing feminists yourself. Not all of them want to be called "womyn". And I am talking very small cases of people here, so just because you've never met one doesn't mean they don't exist. And 3. I actually have met a woman who thought being called "ma'am" was derogatory and preferred being called sir. Not sure anyone actually did, but that was her preference. (Also, why are you bothering a year-old post?) –  Bobo May 28 at 21:03

On the TV show Castle, Beckett, a female officer, often addresses her superior female boss as "sir", in a respectful context.

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Starting in Season 4, episode 1, on January 10, 2011, in the show "Castle", Penny Johnson Jerald, as the new captain, Victoria "Iron" Gates, insists upon the use of "sir".

The first time I heard it used on TV was in 1992, Star Trek The Next Generation, the episode "The First Duty" when the trial president, a female, was addressed as "sir" by all others.

In NCIS, did Jenny, as Director, tell her subordinate she was to be addressed as "sir or director" ? I think so.

I never have heard it used in real life, but wish there was a female equivalent. Female terms tend to assume new, negative, meanings. From Dictionary.com:

Madam: 1. ( often initial capital letter ) a polite term of address to a woman, originally used only to a woman of rank or authority: Madam President; May I help you, madam? 2. the woman in charge of a household: Is the madam at home? 3. the woman in charge of a house of prostitution.

The derivative of madam, ma'am, has not changed so much, but it is not a term often used other than to royalty or by a subservient ... not a typical word in US English.

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What bearing would TV space operas have on this discussion? Do you suppose that all manufactured usages in speculative fiction should in some way govern English usage? –  Robusto Jun 21 at 10:35

And I just heard it used in the Canadian show "The Listener" by a male Lieutenant to his immediate female superior. In case it matters the episode is "The Blue Line" just under halfway through.

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What was the context, sincere or sarcastic? Additionally, to what service is the rank "lieutenant" referring (military, police, etc.)? –  Theodore Broda May 28 at 4:43

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