Skip To Content

On ‘Ma’am’ — and Israel’s Sage Approach to Honorifics

Natalie Angier doesn’t like to be called, “Ma’am.”

Writer Natalie Angier ? don?t call her ?Ma?am.? Image by

The honorific was the subject of this recent article that Angier — a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer and the author of several books including “Woman: an Intimate Geography” — published last weekend in The New York Times.

The article’s subtitle reads, “Defenders of the honorific say it is meant to confer respect. So why are some women rebelling against the term?” The answer, according to Angier’s piece, is because the moniker makes them feel flattened, generic, de-sexualized, or just plain old and fat. Some women feel that this ostensible sign of respect really indicates that its user wants to create distance, to not really engage with you as an individual.

But I am a bit tired of all this ado about nothing.

A lot of time is wasted on debating the merits of Mrs. and Miss vs. Ms., and now Ma’am vs. Madam. Women agonize over whether to keep their maiden name or take their husband’s.

I’ll admit that I did think all this was more important when I was younger and newly married. I opted for hyphenating my last name in order to please everyone, and just ended up creating a bureaucratic mess for myself (for those of you considering hyphenation for your future, be forewarned that many computer systems aren’t supportive of the decision).

By the time my kids came along and life became more hectic than I could have ever imagined, I didn’t give a hoot that the nurse at the pediatrician’s office called me Mrs. Zand. I was happy to let her call me whatever she wanted, so long as she would book an appointment for my sick kids for the same day that I called.

I’ve always liked the Israeli approach to honorifics, which is to say that they barely know that they exist. I grew up attending an Israeli-style Jewish day school in Toronto, where we always called our teachers by their first names (or by “Morah” [teacher], which I mistook for a given name when I was very young). I participated in Israeli army summer programs where we called our commanding officers by their first names. My first teaching job was in a school in which my students called me, “Renee,” and not “Ms. Ghert-Zand” (good thing, since that’s quite a mouthful – though not as much of one as say, “Goldberg-Zankowsky”).

Any time someone tells me that my students — or anyone — won’t respect me if I let them call me by my first name, I tell them that honor is not earned through honorifics.

And as for being called “Ma’am,” I don’t love it, but I also don’t hate it. Perhaps if I were a Senator or police chief, like some of the women cited by Angiers, I would take more offense to the term. But I am not. I am a journalist and educator, who is more interested in listening to what people tell me than worrying about what they call me.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.