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It's become conventional wisdom that, when addressing the Queen after introduction, one must be sure to address her as "ma'am" as if it were to rhyme with "ham". Only "ma'am" and "ham" don't rhyme. Or they haven't done, not traditionally. Well, save for in America, but one hardly imagines the Queen (or anyone else of the Estate really) wishes to be addressed as that travesty of elocution. In fact, women in America are said to disfavor being addressed as such, perhaps pigs too if not for being dead, smoked, and biting an apple on their dining tables, but I digress. Nevertheless of Americans, Britons certainly haven't traditionally rhymed these words, not even in RP. Yet, here we are. Because of some "movie" apparently.

In any instance, the question is this: Does "ma'am" as in "ham" apply generally speaking or only in reference to the Queen? Has anyone stopped to consider that the pronunciation of "ma'am" remains as it always has been, with a rather tall "a" that slightly lingers sans glottal constriction into a rounded "um"? That this "mam like ham" policy only applies, if it applies, when saying "ma'am" in reference to the Queen to the Queen* directly?

It is the Queen's English after all. More especially, it is Her Majesty's pronoun to receive. Presumably, One can have it pronounced at court as One wishes. It's entirely her prerogative to ask to be called as she prefers, which is no different to anyone else really. Frankly, she could very well order her staff to instruct her audience pronounce it "codfish". Only, unlike with individuals of the general public making such a request, the Queen would likely be obliged, at least somewhat. If it were indeed the case, it would perhaps be easier and less confusing addressing her as "codfish" than some permutation of the existing word "ma'am" which the people thusly presume applies generally and possibly shouldn't do.

Then again, perhaps it's the Queen's intent to "leave her mark", as it were: to prescribe a new pronunciation to this word most personal for her that will remain in indelible writ as legacy imparting. Then again again, perhaps it's not the Queen at all, rather some uppity menial who enjoys messing visitors and dignitaries about as they are on their way to meet the Queen. Personally, I blame the butler, but who knows?

No, really, who knows? For I would like to. With every basis for this pronunciation beating a path that leads straight back to Buckingham Palace and seemingly Queen Elizabeth II, it begs a question.

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  • 8
    At least here in the US, when we say "ma'am" (a fading usage, but still somewhat common in the South when using the polite register), it always rhymes with ham. We never use mum (to us, that word means "to keep quiet" or "how British people pronounce mom").
    – Dan Bron
    Apr 13, 2015 at 11:42
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    I often hear "mum" in BrE, never in AmE.
    – Robusto
    Apr 13, 2015 at 11:46
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    @Dan: Americans do use mum. It's is short for chrysanthemum. Apr 13, 2015 at 12:38
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    @PeterShor Pshaw, only in the plural (mums).
    – Dan Bron
    Apr 13, 2015 at 12:46
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    Even though I am American, I would consider it shockingly disrespectful to call the Queen a ham, at least to her face.
    – Greg Lee
    Apr 13, 2015 at 13:18

4 Answers 4

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Debrett's recommends us to pronounce Ma'am to rhyme with Pam.

In my variety of British English, that is /Pæ:m/. My dialect exhibits the bad-lad split and "mam" has a long vowel. I pronounce Pam, palm, cat, and mum with four different vowels.

Update 28/04/2022 (the original page no longer exists)

Use ‘Your Majesty’ for the first time and subsequently ‘Ma’am’. This should always rhyme with ‘lamb’. Pronunciation to rhyme with ‘palm’ has not been correct for some generations.
Debrett’s

I've never used the word ma'am in any context and I've never heard it used by any British-English speaker (except in historical films, or when imitating an American accent). Regardless of that, having either a word or a pronunciation that I would only use when addressing the Queen is not so strange: after all, I don't go around calling people "Your Majesty" left, right and centre.

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The first syllable of madam is mad, not mard, so why should ma'am not rhyme with ham?

The pronunciation marm exists, but is incorrect. (I was surprised to see that dictionaries describe schoolmarm as American, despite American English being rhotic.)

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  • But you could compare shall with shan't where the latter has a different vowel in most forms of southern UK English (longer and further back) despite being a contraction of shall not
    – Stuart F
    Feb 28 at 12:06
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    Thank you for my new word "rhotic."
    – axlotl
    Feb 28 at 17:07
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What you're hearing as "ham" should actually sound to an American more like "mum". The actual word being spoken, however, is truly just "ma'am". The proper etiquette, as it were, is to first address the Queen as "Your Majesty" and then, thereafter, as "ma'am".

This isn't especially unique to the Queen, by the by. The word "madam" has been historically used generally when people of a lower class speak with women of a higher class. For example, a merchant might historically have greeted a lord's wife as "My Lady" and then thereafter referred to her as "ma'am".

When referring to men, the equivalent word is "sir".

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    I don't believe this answers the question. The question is: if you speak the standard variety of British English, do you use the pronunciation of "ma'am" that rhymes with "ham" for anybody other than a member of the British royal family? Or do you rhyme it with "farm" and "palm" otherwise? Apr 14, 2015 at 17:00
  • The word is the word. How the word is pronounced will vary regionally. If that's truly the OP's question, it would be better suited for an online poll rather than a solicitation for the hard and fast "rule".
    – R Mac
    Apr 14, 2015 at 17:04
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    The protocol for meeting the Queen includes instructions on how to pronounce ma'am, which proscribe what is probably the most common British pronunciation. Apr 14, 2015 at 17:09
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    @R Mac: you should learn the difference between prescribe and proscribe. I meant proscribe. And if the Queen doesn't care how you pronounce "ma'am" why is it recommended that you should rhyme it with "ham", a pronunciation that is unusual for many speakers of British English? Apr 14, 2015 at 18:54
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    @PeterShor Not so. When I was at an all-boys primary school in the 1950s we called the female (married) teachers mam - rhyming with ham. (Had they been unmarried it would have been miss) From what we are told the Queen likes people to call her mam rhyming with ham, which seems to fit exactly with my experience of those days. What she doesn't like is ma'am rhyming with farm. And I don't blame her either. And incidentally mum (meaning mother) is pronounced differently around the UK. In the Midlands it is mam.
    – WS2
    Jan 4, 2016 at 23:48
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To put it as plainly and simply as possible, the first time you address Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II you call her "Your Majesty", during the rest of any conversation you may be fortunate enough to have with, you are instructed to say "Ma'am" and yes that is to rhyme with jam/ham.

In the rest of the UK the following use of "Ma'am" structure is simple enough; If for example you were addressing a senior female in the police/military, even in military Air/Army/Sea cadets, you would address that senior female office as "Ma'am" to rhyme with palm/calm etc. And yes I used the word office because, she may not be an actual officer per se, it is used informally also to proffer respect to any female who is senior to you in any way. It is merely used to show respect and decorum also a way of allowing you to show respect without utilising the formal command structure. A similar example would be that of the Gunnery Sergeant in the US Military, they are often referred to just as "Gunny", now naturally you wouldn't call them "Gunny" in a formal or official setting but, it is widely accepted as the way to address them within the rank structure without the need to address them as Gunnery Sergeant 'Name' every time you speak to them.

As you can see following protocol isn't difficult, it is basic respect. Just the following of the laid down command structure, which has been built from years of accepted protocol being observed.

TL:DR It isn't difficult, first time you would address The Queen as "Your Majesty" following on from that you call her "Ma'am" to rhyme with Jam/Ham. If referring to someone else using "Ma'am" it is said to rhyme with palm/calm etc.

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    Palm rhymes with Mom for most speakers. Not for me, mind you, but for most.
    – tchrist
    Feb 27, 2019 at 4:20
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    @tchrist: Not for most speakers in the UK.
    – herisson
    Feb 27, 2019 at 7:47

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