Hey, lady: Call her 'madam'

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Anyone who thinks it's a bad idea to have the marble ceiling in the House of Representatives broken is keeping quiet about it.

The high point, by bipartisan consensus, of President Bush's State of the Union address last week was his gracious opening: "[T]onight, I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own – as the first President to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker."

It turns out there's a particular, albeit obscure, term for this. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "madam" can be not only a noun but a transitive verb, sometimes with "up." It cites a line from Samuel Richardson's 1741 novel "Pamela": "In came the coachman ... and madamed me up strangely." Mr. Bush did his madaming live on national television.

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The US House practice of addressing the speaker (hitherto) as "Mr. Speaker" follows the usage of the British House of Commons. There's something appealingly plainclothes, plain-spoken about this use of "Mr." After all, it's the House of Commons.

This chamber has known a "Madam Prime Minister," too: Margaret Thatcher. That phrase worked its way into the title of one of her biographies – and into the bios of Indira Gandhi of India and Gro Harlem Bruntland of Norway, too.

Golda Meir of Israel, to name the other person who should be mentioned in this group, was formally addressed as "Madam Prime Minister" when she visited Richard Nixon's White House in 1969.

And in Liberia it's "Madam President" Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

All these examples point to "madam" as a way to refer to the woman in charge, not just the lady of the house but the lady of the House. I hope this trail of accomplished women will erase associations of "madam" with other, less fortunate, kinds of houses.

The great thing about "madam" is that it works with or without another word attached – unlike "Mr." It's an oddity of the English language that some terms used to address someone don't always work when referring to that person, and vice versa. By which I mean: You can address someone as "sir," or with "Mr." if the name is attached – "Good morning, Mr. Jones." But "mister," standing alone, sounds, well, a little down-market: "Hey, mister, do you know where you're going?"

Conversely, "sir" is a useful term of address – "Excuse me, sir, did you mean to leave your newspaper?" But it's not really anyone's name; it doesn't work to refer to anyone.

That was the joke in the title of Sidney Poitier's 1967 movie, "To Sir, With Love." Poitier, playing a teacher in a tough London school, manages to get his students to address him as "sir." But they don't quite get that it's not his name.

"Lady" in the singular, as a vocative – a term of address – has the same issue as "mister." With a name attached (Lady Bracknell) it's fine. But without it – ixnay. "Hey, lady, you look lost."

"Lady" is the home-grown counterpart to the French import "madame," which lost its "e" when it moved across the English Channel. "Madame," or "madam," literally means "my lady."

"Lady" sometimes consorts with "lord," and sometimes hangs around with "gentleman." Both "lord" and "lady" are native English words rooted in the idea of providing daily bread for a household.

A friend who in an earlier life served as an intelligence officer in the Marines recounted the other day that she had once gotten in trouble for addressing a group of her fellow women marines as "guys."

"What should you have said?" I asked.

" 'Ladies' would have been OK," she answered. "Or 'marines.' But 'guys,' no."

I can see it now in the recruiting posters: "The Marines. Looking for a few good ladies." Or maybe not.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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