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THE WORD

Adam, she's Madam

PETER CANELLOS, the Globe's Washington bureau chief, e-mailed earlier this month with some questions about Nancy Pelosi's new title.

"On press releases, some lawmakers call her Madame Speaker and others call her Madam Speaker," he reported. "Is one French only? Is one the top cat in a brothel? And why call her Madam Speaker rather than Ms. Speaker, Miss Speaker, etc.?"

Why indeed? Etymologically speaking, Mrs. Speaker -- or Miss, or Ms. -- is the proper match for Mr. Speaker; all these titles are based on master or mistress, both rooted in the Latin magister, "master, teacher."

Madam is a different kettle of pisces: like madonna, it traces its ancestry to the Latin domina, "boss lady." But the corresponding boss man is missing in English; our only dons are Don Juans, Mafiosi, and British professors. We make do with sir, though we lack a corresponding signora or senora.

In the female title category, madam has generally outranked mistress (which was first abbreviated as Mrs. in the 15th century, then developed a separate identity and pronunciation). Madame was originally for women of rank, says the Oxford English Dictionary; in the "Canterbury Tales," Chaucer describes the delight of some wives at the prospect of their husbands' becoming aldermen, which would allow them the title madame.

Mistress and Mrs., too, were respectable titles, meant for "gentlewomen." But while Mrs., through the centuries, has been steadily democratized, the usage arbiters quoted in the OED keep defending the special honor of madam.

For instance, in the 1696 edition of Edward Phillips's dictionary, "The New World of Words," madam is defined as "a Title of Honour, which is given...to Women of Quality, as Princesses, Dutchesses, and others; but grown a little too common of late."

Robert Forby, in "The Vocabulary of East Anglia" (1830), calibrates the courtesy more precisely: "Madam, a term of respect to gentlewomen; below lady, but above mistress. In a village, the Esquire's wife...must have madam prefixed to her surname."

Despite these efforts, by the 19th century madam was loosening its laces. Any old Mrs. could now be madam, and the title was "frequently assumed," notes the OED, by schoolteachers, dressmakers, fortune-tellers -- anyone hoping "to imply skill and sophistication, or foreign origin." And late in the century, madam lost its honor entirely, becoming a euphemism for "brothel-keeper" -- the mistress of another sort of household.

But madam had also been employed, since the 15th century, with titles of office, and in this role it has survived.

True, the Supreme Court ruled against it. In 1980, anticipating the appointment of a female colleague, the justices quietly changed their style of address from "Mr. Justice Stewart" to simply "Justice Stewart."

According to William Safire's account in his New York Times language column, Potter Stewart explained that "A judge is a judge, and a Justice a Justice -- no need for anything additional." And besides, "Who knew whether a woman Justice would want to be called 'Mrs. Justice,' or 'Madam Justice,' or 'Ms. Justice'?"

This is not very convincing. There had already been half a dozen female cabinet secretaries, and female ambassadors had served since the Truman administration -- all madams. Were the Supremes afraid that if they let the woman choose, they'd end up with a militant Ms. Justice? (Ms. was still viewed with suspicion; the Times stylebook didn't admit it till 1986.) Or were the gentlemen of an age to find "madam" -- a taboo word in their impressionable youth -- a bit indelicate?

No matter. Though banned from the bench, madam has prospered in other branches of government, a convenient title that cares nothing about marital status; it only expects its bearer to look old enough to vote.

And yet, we've somehow neglected to settle on a spelling. Even the AP stylebook gives newspapers no guidance, perhaps because madam is mostly an oral form of address. "If It's Madame President, Who Gets Her Senate Seat?" asked the Times recently, over a story on Hillary Clinton's candidacy. And a headline in last week's Globe was "The ups and downs of being Madame Speaker." "Madam Speaker" leads "Madame" in Google hits, but only by 3 to 2.

There's no reason for this French spelling, the usage authorities agree. Madame may be used for dignitaries from other countries -- a remnant, perhaps, of the days when French was the language of diplomacy -- but the English-style "Madam Merkel" is OK, too. So when we spot a female speaker, ambassador, cabinet secretary, or president, ladies and gentlemen of the press, let's call her madam.

E-mail Jan Freeman at freeman@globe.com. For the Word blog, go to boston.com/ideas/brainiac/word.

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