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In President Trump's letter to Speaker Pelosi, he addressed Pelosi as "Madame Speaker".

The Honorable Nancy Pelosi
Speaker of the House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear Madame Speaker:

However, in an episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Colbert mentioned that "Madame" with the "e" is incorrect.

"Trump made a mistake in the very first line by misspelling Pelosi's name. He wrote 'Dear Madame Speaker'. Nancy Pelosi is actually 'Madam Speaker' without the 'e'".

Personally, I am accustomed to using "Madam" but is "Madame" with the 'e' still correct? And is it commonly used in the United States?

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    As far as I know, they are alternate spellings of the same word. Madame might be slightly more formal, although I expect this is mostly a matter of opinion. – Andrew Jan 21 at 15:13
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Merriam-Webster defines madame as:

[...] a title equivalent to Mrs. for a married woman not of English-speaking nationality [emphasis mine].

I suspect this dates back to the days when French was the official language of international diplomacy, which began around the 14th century all the way to through post-WWII period when English started taking over. You do still see remnants of this literal lingua franca in settings like the Olympics, where all announcements are made in English, French, and the language of the host country.

So Jiang Qing, the wife of Mao Zedong, was often referred to as Madame Mao, because this would have been the form of address in formal diplomatic settings. Again, French isn't the dominant diplomatic language today, so you'd probably be less likely to hear Madame used for a contemporary political figure.

Even putting aside the decline in the use of French, when talking about internal politics, the rules of international diplomacy shouldn't apply. As English-speakers, we should use Madam as an honorific for an English-speaking person.

I could imagine Madame being used as a joke to invoke the old-fashioned, very formal international diplomacy mood in a sarcastic way. If done deliberately, it has a little bit of the same effect of calling a non-royal person "your majesty" sarcastically, although it's not nearly as strong or insulting (a lot would depend on tone of voice if it were spoken). This is one reason that people are drawing attention to this particular usage by the President - it does have a possibility of a tiny hint of sarcasm, although it could also just be an unintentional error.

  • Interestingly, in the particular case of Madam / Madame Mao, Google Books gives me exactly the same total (13,900 hits) for both spellings. It seems incredibly unlikely that just happens to reflect the reality of actual spelling - but given the huge difference with Madam / Madam Speaker, it's tempting to suppose the Google techies who coded up those indexes specifically chose to treat the Mao versions as "equivalent", but not the Speaker versions. – FumbleFingers Jan 22 at 15:47
  • @FumbleFingers - When I search for Madam Mao in Google (not books), it actually says Showing results for "madame mao" (which is why the hit count is identical). Below that, it does offer a link to search for madam if that's what I really want; if I choose that link, it returns less than 10% the hit count of the Madame version. Google Ngram shows a similar disparity. – Canadian Yankee Jan 22 at 19:17
  • Well, Madame Mao is essentially the same as Madame Bovary as mentioned in my own answer - a gender-specific alternative to "adverbial" Mister [name]. As opposed to Madam President / Speaker, where the second element is a title / position, rather than a proper noun / surname. I suppose in facetious spoken contexts the difference could be reflected by stressing the second syllable rather than the first (reflecting the French pronunciation as opposed to the spelling). – FumbleFingers Jan 23 at 12:35
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Google Books claims almost half a million written instances of madam speaker (matching all permutations of capital/lower case M/S), compared to just 2300 hits for madame speaker.

Where the term is specifically part of a French woman's "name" (as in Madame Bovary), it would be normal to include that extra e (as the French themselves do). When it's a "gender-specific" alternative to "adverbial" Mister as a term of address (as in Mister Speaker, Mr President), or Dear Sir/Madam introducing a letter or email, you probably shouldn't include it.

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Colbert had it correct.. Madame refers to a married French lady but can also be used slightly more broadly when referring to a older lady of distinction of non-British, non-American heritage and in that case it is independent of marital status.

"Madam" can also refer to the highest ranking woman in a house, so where you would say "Is the Master of the House home?" for a man you would say "Is the Madam of the house home?" but this usage is old fashioned now and would be markedly odd.

In this case the word is being used to to feminize an American gender neutral rank "Speaker" and is referring to an American woman so "Madam Speaker" is the correct usage.

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"Madam" refers to a woman of refinement, and "Madame" is a title used for a married Frenchwoman. I would say it both can be used and have the same context and meaning, the origin is the only thing that changes.

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