Short-Termism: How our words shrink over time

PUBLISHED: 12:00 08 April 2019 | UPDATED: 08:52 09 April 2019

Ma'am is still in use in the US, but is much rarer in Britain. The term is still used to address the queen after first calling her 'Your Majesty'. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Ma'am is still in use in the US, but is much rarer in Britain. The term is still used to address the queen after first calling her 'Your Majesty'. Picture: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

PETER TRUDGILL explains the processes by which phrases can contract to just a shadow of their former selves.

It is often the fate of words and phrases, over the millennia, to get shorter and shorter. The Latin phrase hoc die, ‘this day’, famously became so shortened in French – as hui, ‘today’ – that French speakers increased its length again by saying au-jour-d’hui, literally ‘on the day of this day’. Modern French août, ‘August’, pronounced “oo”, comes from Latin augustum. English going to is now very often simply gonna. There used to be five separate sounds in knight: k, n, i, h and t, but now it only has three. Or is a reduced form of other; and but was originally be-utan. In Old English, forty was feowertig.

In some parts of the USA it is not altogether uncommon – or at least it used not to be – for people to respond to a question, request or instruction on the part of an adult female speaker by saying “Yes’m!”. That ’m is a short, weakened, unstressed form of ma’am – a word which you hear rather more frequently as a polite form of address in the USA than on this side of the Atlantic. (It can be very useful for attracting a woman’s attention if, say, you notice she has just dropped something. Over here we might find ourselves using rather more awkward strategies such as calling out “Excuse me!” or “Hey!”)

Ma’am seems to have first come into use in English in the late 1600s; and it is in its turn an abbreviated form of madam, which until about 1600 had generally been spelt madame and been pronounced with the stress on the second syllable, “ma-DAHM”. This is what you might expect of a word borrowed from French, where stress – insofar as there is any at all – occurs on the last syllable: Americans still pronounce many 
French-origin words like debris, ballet, garage, and beret with the stress at 
the end.

The pronunciation of madame, however, was gradually anglicised to MADD’m, with the stress on the first syllable (the letter e was also generally dropped from the spelling). Madam then acquired the shortened form, ma’am, as a term of address.

The original French word which was the source of these forms had originally been two separate words: ma dame, meaning ‘my lady’. This is paralleled by the Italian term ma donna to madonna. Both the French and the Italian forms are derived from the Latin mea domina, which had the same meaning. So in the American address-form ’m, all that remains of the nine vowels and consonants of the original Latin phrase mea domina is the second m-sound – a loss of 89%!

The male equivalent of madam is, of course, sir. This has no connection with dominus, the masculine equivalent of domina, but is instead derived from Old French sire, which came from an earlier form sieire, from Late Spoken Latin seior. This was a reduced version of the classical Latin adjective senior, ‘older, elder’, the comparative form of senex, ‘old’. We have since borrowed the words senior and seniority into English directly; and senex is also the source of the words senile, senility, senescent, senator and senate.

The use of senior as a noun has also given us the well-known terms of respectful address used to men in the modern Romance languages, equivalent to sir or Mr: Portuguese senhor, Spanish señor, Catalan senyor, Italian signor. The -sieur part of modern French word monsieur has the same origin.

When I was at my all-male secondary school in the 1950s and 1960s, we were expected to address all our teachers as sir. We were so well trained in this that any utterance which passed our lips, when talking to a schoolmaster, ended in this word, pronounced rapidly and in very reduced form. For us, all that was left of the original Latin word senior was the very brief syllable suh.

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