In English crime series I often hear mom or mam or mum. I don't know...

What does it mean? When is an appropriate time to use it?

See this trailer from the BBC's Bodyguard crime series.

  • 2
    In the video, "mam" ("ma'am") is being said with an accent which makes the "a" sound more like a "u" (to the American ear).
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 18, 2018 at 11:53
  • @HotLicks It has nothing to do with an American ear. It has to do with the fact that it is pronounced differently than the "proper" ma'am or marm. It's pronounced like the BrE working class word for one's mum.
    – Lambie
    Oct 18, 2018 at 15:20
  • @Lambie - My point is that many people from the British Isles, even those who personally would pronounce it the "right' way, would hardly notice the difference. Their brain does a translation before they even consciously hear it.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 18, 2018 at 16:33
  • @HotLicks Maybe, but that does not change the sound they produce, in all fairness,does it?
    – Lambie
    Oct 18, 2018 at 16:37
  • 1
    @Lambie - The point is that someone from Omaha would hear the "ma'am" in the video and interpret it as "mom", while someone from London would hear "ma'am", without having to consciously think about it. There are many cases where vowel sounds are changed, consonants are slurred together, etc, where this is true. How you can "correct" for an accent depends greatly on your familiarity with the accent.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 18, 2018 at 16:41

5 Answers 5


What you are hearing is not mum as in mother, but ma’am, contraction of madam, with a strongly reduced vowel. In British English, it is mostly used as a sign of repect for a woman of superior rank, say, in the military or police. In the film clip, Keeley Hawes appears to be playing the Prime Minister, whose bodyguard addresses her as ‘ma’am’ with the reduced vowel. At the end of this clip from Casino Royale, James Bond (Daniel Craig) addresses M (Judi Dench) in the same fashion.

In British English, the full vowel is reserved for royals:

On presentation to The Queen, the correct formal address is 'Your Majesty' and subsequently 'Ma'am,' pronounced with a short 'a,' as in 'jam'.

For other female members of the Royal Family the first address is conventionally 'Your Royal Highness' and subsequently 'Ma'am'.

In American English the vowel is never reduced and may be used as a polite form of addressing any woman, especially one unknown to the speaker:

Excuse me, ma’am, you’ve dropped your keys.

Some Americans might address younger women as miss in the same context.

  • 2
    From an earlier ELU question: Back in the day, the word ma’am (when addressing the Queen) was always pronounced “marm”. British TV shows from before the 80s confirm this. As a schoolboy in the 60s I always used the short "a" (mam rhymes with ham, not form) when addressing a female teacher, and it's my understanding that if any of us had used the long "a" the teacher would very likely have said something like Just call me "mam", please. I'm not The Queen, you know! Oct 18, 2018 at 14:41
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    @FumbleFingers That +1 was mine. That said, I just want to add that a working class pronunciation of "my mum" (mother) is "my mam" (in some BrE). Could it be the case that in attempting to avoid the working class "mam" for mother they over-compensate by saying mum for madam?? Otherwise, how does one explain it? Would an Oxford graduate say mum like that for ma'am? (leaving aside the queen for a second).
    – Lambie
    Oct 18, 2018 at 15:10
  • 1
    @Lambie: You're quite right about mam as a "Northern UK" variant pronunciation. Northern dialects normally enunciate the /ʌ/ vowel in "mum" similar to the way I as a Southerner say "took" - short (not long as in "tomb") which I'll arbitrarily suppose could be represented by /ʊ/, because I'm not an IPA expert. I suspect the "mam" version is effectively a "different word" - which for some reason I'd always expect to occur as Me mam (as opposed to My /mʊm/). Oct 18, 2018 at 17:35
  • (Oh - and I obviously meant to write farm above, not form.) Oct 18, 2018 at 17:44
  • @FumbleFingers Thank you for the acknowledgement. Yes, one hears: Me mam, whereas in the south one would hear: me mum or my mum, depending on education etc.
    – Lambie
    Oct 18, 2018 at 18:07

As Chris H says in his comment to another answer in the context of the clip provided the person is addressed in the clip as "Ma'am" short for "Madam".

This is common practice in British English when military, police, fire service etc. junior members address a female person of superior rank to themselves. It is also done as an act of respect for other senior figures up to and including Her Majesty the Queen in some circumstances depending on protocol.

In the case of the Bodyguard which has already been shown in Britain on the BBC, the person addressed is actually a senior politician ( The Home Secretary, third most important Government post I think I did not watch it) rather than a police officer.


In every British series, it sounds to me like they are saying “MOM” (at least in American English that is how it would be spelled phonetically). From what I am gleaning in these posts, it seems that we are all hearing the same sound on both sides of the Atlantic, but the BrItish spell the sound differently than we do, aka pronounce the vowels differently. Also, they may have different rules of pronunciation for the consonant -vowel-consonant combination, such as in Smerican English, the CvC combo generally uses the short form pronunciation of the vowel (not always, though).


When Britain says and spell mum and the American says and spell mom it is so distinctively easy to tell. Cos coming from us Canadian we spelt it M.O.M we still pronounce it as (MUM). Majority of Canadians don't know this, so they think we pronounce MOM the same as American pronounce it which couldn't even be further than the truth. I usually thought that until I was reading some Canadian pronunciation out of curiosity, while ago

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  • This appears to be an answer to an entirely different question.
    – Chenmunka
    Jun 3, 2022 at 14:40

It means 'mother', and is used by someone when speaking to their mother, or about their mother or someone else's mother. Some people do call their mother 'mother', either because they were brought up to do so or as a sign of exasperation with the mother's behaviour.

It is an informal usage, but them relationships with one's mother tend to be informal.

The use is not limited to UK English, in American TV and film the word 'mom' is frequent, especially these days in terms of 'Soccer mom'.

  • 2
    But in the youtube link, he is definitely not speaking to his mother. I saw it several times and always if they address a female who is higher up in the chain of command.
    – PalimPalim
    Oct 18, 2018 at 11:47
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    "Mom" and "mum" mean "mother", but "mam" means "ma'am" -- "madam".
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 18, 2018 at 11:51
  • Sorry, I do not have headphones or speakers on my present computer, but if this is what I think it is then they are using ma'am, short for 'madam' and an equivalent of the 'sir' used for men. In a criminal gang run by a woman, then the gang members could refer to the boss as 'mum', but I cannot think of a source for that.
    – Trevor Christopher Butcher
    Oct 18, 2018 at 11:53
  • 'mam' also means mother, see: soundcloud.com/faberbooks/…
    – Trevor Christopher Butcher
    Oct 18, 2018 at 11:57
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    "Ma'am" would be appropriate for a junior police officer addressing a more senior female officer in Britain (while a male superior would be addressed as "sir"). The British military also use "ma'am" to address female superiors.
    – Chris H
    Oct 18, 2018 at 12:21

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