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I suspect that the answer to this depends on region, so insights from multiple areas would be beneficial:

It has been my impression that in the US addressing a woman as "Madam" is considered borderline-vulgar due to the term's usage as the title of a female proprietor of a brothel.

Is it acceptable to use "Madam" when addressing a woman you do not know or should the alternative "Ma'am" (silent "D") be used? Does it depend on spoken vs. written communication?

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US usage may differ, but certainly in the UK I've never heard anyone suggest that the honorific "Madam" might give offense due to association with brothels. And the shortened "Ma'am" is considered acceptable when addressing the Queen (only after the first time, when you must say "Your Majesty"), so I'd say that's always okay in speech. But in writing it should always be "Madam", never "Ma'am". –  FumbleFingers Sep 6 '11 at 22:53
    
@FumbleFingers: That's a good point about not writing "Ma'am." –  oosterwal Sep 7 '11 at 2:20
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As long as you don't use an article (the madam, or a madam) I can't imagine anyone taking offense. Good: "Allow me to introduce Madam Smith." Bad: "Allow me to introduce the madam, Smith." –  MT_Head Jul 8 '12 at 17:18
    
@MT_Head I've never heard anyone called 'Madam Smith' unless they happened to be French (Madame) or associated with arts such as ballet, opera etc. In everyday English usage you would not use Madam with a surname. –  Mynamite Apr 20 at 10:33
    
@Mynamite - Google is a thing. Use it. –  MT_Head Apr 21 at 5:30
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6 Answers 6

up vote 7 down vote accepted

In modern use in American English, the term ma'am has gained quite a bit more use than madam:

In modern use in British English, madam is slightly more popular than ma'am:

As a native American English speaker, madam seems a bit archaic but does not necessarily connote a tie with a brothel unless you refer to someone as a madam. For example, the Oxford English dictionary provides the following example for madam of a brothel:

1959 N. Mailer Advts. for Myself (1961) 279 A rather remarkable woman who had been the madam of a whorehouse.

But as a form of address, it is used differently:

1956 N. Algren Walk on Wild Side ii. 122 It's not a pot, Madam. And it's strictly not for sale.

The typical terms I've heard are miss for younger females and ma'am for older ones. You could potentially refer to someone as madam or ma'am in either spoken or written communication. In formal writing, for example to someone whose name you do not know, use madam in both cases. For example:

When addressing a letter to the holder of a particular position without knowing the name or gender of the addressee, it is common to write “Dear Sir or Madam,” (or in the United States, “Dear Sir or Madam:”

This holds in both American and British English.

In less formal writing or speech, I would suggest using whichever term is more popular for the community you are in--ma'am in American English, and madam in British English. In both, madam will seem a bit more formal.

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Use 'miss' on enough women, and one of them will eventually complain you're being pert. Use 'madam' on enough women, and one will eventually take umbrage at your implying she is of advanced years. One is best advised to avoid that whole snake pit and refer to everyone, male and female alike, as 'sugar'. –  jela Sep 7 '11 at 0:52
    
@jela your comment is like the canonical definition of punchline –  nohat Sep 7 '11 at 3:15
    
I don't think I've ever seen ma'am as a written form of address. Can anyone come up with credible examples? –  FumbleFingers Sep 7 '11 at 4:02
    
Here is one credible example (pdf). –  D Krueger Sep 7 '11 at 4:12
    
+1 - "Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book? It took me years to write, will you take a look?" –  oosterwal Sep 22 '11 at 17:42
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Maybe, just once, someone will call me "Sir" without adding, "You're making a scene." -- Homer Simpson

"Madam" as a noun certainly means "brothel keeper" in the US but I don't think that has stained its use as an honorific. I don't know why not; certainly no one whose job involves hooking things (like fish) or stripping things (like furniture) would be willing to describe that job as "hooking" or "stripping".

However, in the US, the honorific "Madam" is associated with a level of formality so great that anyone thus addressed will likely believe that she is being mocked (and usually, she'll be right).

In several Asian countries, the English word "hostess" is used to mean "madam" (in the improper sense); I've seen more than one party thrown in the US by new arrivals from the East almost go very very wrong when an American guest complimented the hostess using that word.

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Is that "hostess" to mean...which meaning of "madam" in the East? –  Mitch Sep 7 '11 at 2:01
    
I'll never be able to watch commercials for Hostess Twinkies and Cupcakes the same way. –  oosterwal Sep 7 '11 at 2:32
    
@Mitch, the meaning that would most upset a women who just meant to throw a party. –  Malvolio Sep 7 '11 at 8:10
    
@Malvolio: ok, but does 'hostess' then mean brothel manager or just plain 'rostitute, or some other specific meaning? –  Mitch Sep 7 '11 at 11:30
    
@Mitch -- I'm not going to ask why exactly you need to know. I'm not any sort of expert myself, but it seemed to me that in the US, the "madam" has a purely executive role while the Korean "room-salon" hostess is what you might call a hands-on manager. More specific than that, you'll have to investigate for yourself. Report back. –  Malvolio Sep 7 '11 at 13:29
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This appears to be more a case of register. "Madam" is the female equivalent for "Sir." It's pretty much at the apex of formality.

"Ma'am," on the other hand, is more akin to "Mister" for men. A median level of decorum. Only context for "Madam" would risk confusion with the brothel-keeper. For example: When I've been lucky enough to dine at 4-star restaurants, women in the party are usually addressed as "Madam" by the waitstaff, and no offense is taken.

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Interesting. How does the use of "sir" and "ma'am" in the military compare to civilian use? –  oosterwal Sep 7 '11 at 2:30
    
One presumes military lingo accords with tradition and obeys it's own trajectory, which occasionally intersects with civilian argot. –  The Raven Sep 7 '11 at 13:34
    
Compare “Mister President” with “Madam Secretary” when addressing the Clintons. –  tchrist Jul 8 '12 at 14:01
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Ngrams only show the usage in literature - which can be a bit selective.

Ma'am is used where you would use 'sir',for senior officer ranks, in the British police and armed forces.

Not sure what you would call a knighted owner of a brothel in BE - possibly "Madam ma'am" ?

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Perhaps "Mdm Madam"? –  oosterwal Sep 7 '11 at 4:27
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As a youngish Australian woman I take offence at ma'am — which sounds brusque, overly Americanised and inappropriate given my age — but never at madam, which to my ears sounds very polite and appropriate. Personally I would never use ma'am.

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If you take offence when none is given and when indeed people are trying their best to be polite to you, then you are just setting yourself up for trouble. Why would you do that? –  tchrist Mar 24 '13 at 11:53
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Madam can refer to feminine side of a woman with affection. For example, "No, Madam, this is not the way one should take a screw driver;" plumber noted.

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You could equally do that with ma'am –  Matt Эллен Jul 9 '12 at 8:52
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protected by tchrist Mar 24 '13 at 11:53

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