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I have read the meaning of "madam" on Google and it is said to be a respectful title for a woman, or a woman who runs a house of prostitution:

A woman who is running a brothel where prostitutes work for money is an example of a madam.

Please clarify.

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    Whether addressing someone as something is appropriate or not varies quite a bit by locale and context, not to mention the individual being addressed. Please edit your post to mention the countries and situations you are interested in. I found madam was quite unexceptional in East Africa, quite insulting in Canada. – choster Dec 29 '20 at 16:56
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    A similar concept of the same word having two meanings, which you may already have heard of, is the word "dick". "Dick" is a name (it's short for "Richard"). "A dick" is an insult or a slang term for part of the male genitalia. – Aaron F Dec 29 '20 at 18:25
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    This is why the article is important as it distinguishes "madam" (title) from "a madam" (noun) – pjc50 Dec 30 '20 at 12:25
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    Richa, it's completely normal in English that words have more than one totally different meaning. BTW just one point, regionally in the US: M'am (and indeed Sir) is the very common form of address in the extremely polite parts of the country (the South-East) but you would rarely hear it in say California. – Fattie Dec 30 '20 at 15:47
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In British English at least, it is inoffensive to use "Madam" as a form of address (equivalent to "Sir" but for women), as in "May I be of any assistance, Madam?".

Americans would usually use "Ma'am" instead.

But "madam" as a common noun — "a madam" — is to be avoided.

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    To add onto this good answer: Americans would not find "madam" offensive, just unusual (since "ma'am" is far more common). – Ryan M Dec 29 '20 at 10:32
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    Likewise, calling a man "a john" or "a dick" is offensive for similar reasons, but calling him "John" or "Dick" is not (although it's incorrect unless that's his actual name). – Darrel Hoffman Dec 29 '20 at 18:24
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    @clockwork see meaning 2 at merriam-webster.com/dictionary/john – Robin Whittleton Dec 30 '20 at 10:37
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    @Clockwork It's also a euphemism for a commode, though usually that's referred to as "the john". But yeah, I was referring to the "prostitute's client" definition. – Darrel Hoffman Dec 30 '20 at 13:44
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    @rjpond Strange, I thought "commode" was the bedside drawer. – Clockwork Dec 30 '20 at 19:28
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"Madam" or "Ma'am" are polite words to use when you don't know a woman's name, but need a way to refer to her like a name. They are terms of address. It is fairly formal and not very common, as in situations when you talk to someone who you don't know, you don't often need to address them. The typical example is a shop worker speaking to a customer.

Would madam like cream in her tea? (This uses third person in a very humble way, it is not normal to speak like this)

It is also used (usually as ma'am) in schools, by schoolchildren to address teachers. (Not all schools use it. It is part of the culture of the school). It is also sometimes used in situations of strict hierarchy. A police constable might refer to her Inspector as "Ma'am" because the constable is a junior officer. The same is true in the armed services. In these contexts, it is nearly always reduced to "ma'am".

Now, one particular context in which you might need to address a woman, but not know her name is a brothel. The woman who organises the prostitutes doesn't give her name (after all, brothels are illegal) and so she is addressed as "madam" and as a common noun, "a madam" can mean a woman who runs a brothel. This doesn't make it offensive. You can say "Thank you, madam" without implying that she is like a brothel keeper.

It is also used ironically. A small girl who acts like she is superior to others is ironically called a "little madam". This also doesn't reference prostitution but is irony.

Advice: Try to avoid "sir" and "madam" as much as possible. This is difficult culturally because in some cultures it is over-familiar to use someone's name. This is not the case in English. If you know someone's name you should normally use it. Even in contexts in which you would not use a name in your language.

Ms Jackson, please come in. Your car is ready for you.

Hello Kathy. Is it okay for me to tidy your office now?

If there is no official hierarchy, and you don't know a person's name you don't need to use Madam or ma'am. You don't need the words in brackets.

Here is my passport [ma'am].

Excuse me [madam], I think I'm lost. Can you tell me how to go to the station?

If you are part the army or police, or meeting the Queen, then you will know when you need to use ma'am.

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    Re "You don't need the words in brackets" - That is true, but at least in AmE, adding a "sir" or "ma'am" is usually seen as a gesture of respect. It's optional (unlike please/thank you), but it can go a long way to smoothing out the interaction and preventing misunderstandings. When talking to strangers or authority figures, I would encourage throwing in a "sir" or "ma'am" once at the start, just to be polite. UK usage is probably different, though. – Kevin Dec 29 '20 at 19:17
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    Americans do tend to use more hierarchical language, paradoxically since culturally they are more egalitarian – James K Dec 29 '20 at 19:58
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    @Kevin Adding in a "sir" or "ma'am" can also come across as a way of calling attention to a difference in class or status which would otherwise be ignored (or might not even exist), thus it can be perceived as impolite or excessively formal. It really depends on the listener and the context of the conversation. – David Z Dec 29 '20 at 20:18
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    I think this is very regional in the US. I'm from California (grew up in Los Angeles, live in the SF bay area.) Calling people "ma'am" or "sir" here would typically get you funny looks, unless you're at work and they are a customer you're serving. (There is one situation where I use "sir" or "ma'am" -- if I am shouting to urgently get a stranger's attention. E.g. "Sir! Sir! You dropped your phone!") – Glenn Willen Dec 29 '20 at 22:19
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    @Kevin This is probably another one of those differences between Britain and the US, but I would never address a police officer as "sir"; I would, however, expect him (as a public servant) to address me as "sir". – rjpond Dec 29 '20 at 23:39
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In general, no, it's not insulting, but it's slightly stiff or formal — more so in American English than in British English. But the specific quote in your question is using one of the senses of the word that most people would find insulting in most cases, yes.

Like many words, madam has multiple meanings/senses.

The respectful one you're thinking of is:

LADY —used without a name as a form of respectful or polite address to a woman

Right this way, madam.

Merriam-Webster, sense 1(a)

This is like the generic¹ sir for men, e.g. "May I help you, [madam/sir]?" Madam is more common in British English than American English, where you'd typically see/hear ma'am (Merriam-Webster) instead (the d that used to be there is neither written nor pronounced in American English).

That's not the sense being used in the quote in your question, though. A madam in the context of a brothel (a house of prostitution) is the woman who runs the brothel:

the female head of a house of prostitution

Merriam-Webster, sense 3

So when could it be insulting?

  • If used to call a woman a madam such that she could reasonably believe you were saying she runs a house of prostitution or comparing her to someone who does.

  • If used in a belittling way to indicate someone is acting as though they were superior to others. I recall hearing a British woman say to her young daughter, "You're behaving like a right little madam!" to mean that her daughter was acting stuck up (Merriam-Webster).

But if you just said "May I help you, madam?" or "After you, madam" or similar, that wouldn't be insulting.


¹ The generic form, not the formal title (Collins, sense 2) in some systems of honorifics, such as the British system with Sir Kenneth Branagh etc. The equivalent of that honorific for a woman is Dame (Collins, sense 1), as in Dame Judi Dench. (Dame can mean other things too. English is great fun...)

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    In North America, anyway, madam can also cause mild offense because it may connote an older (especially, supercilious) woman: Excuse me, madam, you dropped this. / I'm no madam, I'm not even 35! – choster Dec 31 '20 at 17:16
  • @choster - Indeed. :-) – T.J. Crowder Dec 31 '20 at 17:17
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Madam is indeed used as a title of address, more rarely than it once was, at least in US usage. But there is a nuance not mentioned in any answer to date, which helps explain why some women have found it offensive.

Madam has always been used as a title of address for fully adult, even mature women (at least that is the normal usage). Thus when young women, used to being called "Miss" or in many cases given no title at all started to be addressed as "Madam", some considered it as a sign that they were no longer young, and resented it. The use of "madam" is probably no longer common enough for this reaction, but it was once a thing.

Also, like "Sir", the term "Madam" can be used in a stiff politeness actually intended to be insulting. Again this usage is of longer common. Some examples:

  • Sir, I find your actions unacceptable.

  • Madam, I had thought better of you.

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  • To your second point (but not the same usage), when someone calls me sir, I infer that they have no need or wish to remember me as a distinct individual past our current interaction. It's polite from a bank teller, but impolite from a coworker. – jpaugh Jan 1 at 10:10
  • @jpaugh I take your point, but not everyone sees it like that. – David Siegel Jan 1 at 17:12
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Nowadays, in some milieux, it is considered offensive to call anyone anything that presumes their gender. You must not presume that anyone is male or female.

In these days of ultra-political-correctness, we are supposed to ask each individual how they wish to be addressed.

I have no idea what the "correct" form of address is for a stranger these days.

In Britain we don't usually bother with honorifics of this sort anyway. We just assume that the person we are looking at, will realise we are addressing them specifically. If they are facing away from us or at a distance, we simply shout "Excuse me!" in their general direction and hope they turn round.

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Madame has both meanings -- a respectful title for a woman, and a woman who runs a nice brothel where the employees are treated well. We can tell from context which is meant. It helps that pimp is a more common and more insulting word for the second meaning.

Using madam where you would say a job is the brothel owner meaning: "a madam", or "is a madam". From a quick search of headlines "a former call girl, as well as a madam and author", and "Notorious Hollywood Madam Heidi Fleiss".

But using madam as a title or pronoun is fine. "I met madam Smith" is safe, or "madam, that is a lovely brooch" or simply "madam" instead of saying hello (like "your highness"). This use is much more common. If someone overheard just the word "madam" they'd never think about the other meaning.

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    Not "Madam Smith", perhaps "Madame Forgeron" if they are a French teacher but otherwise "Ms" or "Mrs" – James K Dec 29 '20 at 23:23
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    As a respectful form of address it is always spelt "Madam" without an e; the form "Madame" is used only if the person is French (or, historically, if they belong to almost any non-English-speaking nationality - cf "Madame Mao"). – rjpond Dec 29 '20 at 23:41
  • @JamesK But the question isn't asking whether Miss or Madam is more common. That's already been asked here. They're worried about the alternate meaning. – Owen Reynolds Dec 30 '20 at 2:34
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    Yes I am saying that "madam" is a form of address (and also a noun) It isn't a title, so "I met Madam Smith" is not idiomatic. – James K Dec 30 '20 at 8:22
  • @James K In cases where "Mr" was or is used as part of a title (often for a govt office) "Madam" is the formal equivalent. "Madam Speaker Pelosi", "Madam Justice Ginsberg", "Madam Chairwoman Smith" etc. But just as women in such positions began to be more common, most people started dropping both "Mr" and 'Madam" in such titles. This is in US usage. See the works of Judith Martin (aka "Miss Manners".) – David Siegel Dec 30 '20 at 16:12
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A servant or shopkeeper might use 'Madam'. Obsequious politeness. 'Dear Sir or Madam' is an old-fashioned but perfectly polite way to open a business letter to an unknown person.

Yes, 'Madam' can also refer to a brothel-keeper. There's no practical confusion.

It will be a pity if Political Correctness forces us into using a bland gender-less honorific. I know a comedian who gets a good laugh from addressing an audience member as 'Madam' then saying "I hope you don't mind me calling you Madam? I don't even know your profession!"

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It's not offensive, but here in America you'll get a funny look from her (and probably anyone within earshot) if you call a female "madam".

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In the US, "Madam" would most commonly be used in formal letters, not speaking. I cannot think of the last time I spoke "madam" in any conversation.

As others have said, whether madam is respectful or derogatory depends on the local culture, situation, and tone to the word.

Having lived all over the USA, it is certainly used more in the southern US and more likely to be used between strangers in more formal engagements.

Ma'am would be safer, though some women will act offended to be called "Ma'am", since there's an implied "you are older than me". American women can be sensitive about age. It would be safe if you KNOW she is married. If she isn't married, then it becomes vague depending on the approximate age difference and if she thinks you might be in her dating range.

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  • I think the reason "Ma'am" is associated with age is that older folks tend to use honorific titles more often. Men are sometimes also sensitive to age, thus the phrase, "Mr. X is my father!" I take offense when called "sir" by someone (such as a co-worker on the same project or team) who should be taking the time to distinguish me as an individual (not simply a nameless client or customer). – jpaugh Jan 1 at 9:51
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in French, une madame is the name given to a female brothel keeper. When used without the article as in Madame Dupont or Monsieur et Madame Dupont the title becomes purely conventional and would be translated in English as Mrs.

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    Well, the question is about the usage of "madam" in English, not in French. – fev Dec 30 '20 at 13:44
  • @fev Not to mention une madame doesn't mean a female brothel keeper in French. It's more a childish way to say une dame (a lady). – jlliagre Dec 30 '20 at 20:34
  • A language does not live in its own bubble. It is influenced by others, such as Eng madam and Fr madame.as for madame meaning "tenanciere d'un bordel" check out languefrancaise.net/Bob/10642 – tan146 Dec 31 '20 at 6:09
  • While we've hone off the tangent, in Danish "madamme" is definitely offensive, like old hag, though it can be used affectionately by the husband. – Lenne Jan 1 at 1:44

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