Madam, Madame, and owners of brothels

Discussion in 'English Only' started by susanna76, Nov 16, 2014.

  1. susanna76 Senior Member


    I once said Madame when speaking to an American girl, and she laughed and said that in the US that's only owners of brothels. Cut to a few years later -- I see Dear Sir or Madame in a cover letter example on a Romanian site, and laugh to myself thinking they used Madame for Madam.

    And then I see the following in Julian Barnes, The Lemon Table:
    "There hadn't been a Madame, had there?" -- referring to the marriage status of a certain guy

    I then looked at some threads here on WR and saw that no one mentions the brothel connotation about Madame. Apparently brothel owners are Madam, and Madame is mostly used to refer to a French married woman. (Julian Barnes uses it to ask about the wife of an Englishman.)

    Is that how you, too, see things? The girl I mentioned actually has a degree in English, besides being a native speaker.

    Thank you!
  2. 0hisa2me

    0hisa2me Senior Member

    Dijon, France
    British English
    I live in France, where it's naturally quite normal to say 'Madame', but I always find it hard to translate the term into English. Although it feels quite natural to say 'sir' to a man, to me at least it sounds slightly odd to say 'madam' or 'ma'am' to a woman, unless I happen to be speaking to Elizabeth II, which of course isn't something that happens very often.

    Maybe in the Julian Barnes quote, the character is using 'Madame' in French, in a slightly pretentious way.
  3. Glasguensis

    Glasguensis Signal Modulation

    English - Scotland
    The pronunciation is different. The woman who runs a brothel (madam) is pronounced with the stress on the first syllable, whereas Madame, the French title for a married woman is pronounced as in French, with the stress on the second syllable.

    In British English, "Madam" is still used as the equivalent of "Sir", with the same spelling and pronunciation as the brothel owner. The context is usually very clear which one is intended ;)

    Edit: cross-posted. As 0hisa2me says, using "Madame" is nowadays somewhat pretentious unless there is a specific reason for using French (such as the person in question actually being French).
  4. You can't go through life worrying about whether a word with different meanings in different contexts is going to be misinterpreted by your listener or reader. That's their problem - not yours.

    When I say that Anton Oliver was a hooker for the All Blacks*, anybody taking that to mean he was a prostitute lacks a bit of general knowledge, despite having a degree in English and being a native speaker.

    * the New Zealand international rugby union team.
    Last edited: Nov 16, 2014
  5. sdgraham

    sdgraham Senior Member

    Oregon, USA
    USA English
    Obviously, your friend never heard of the classic (American) Broadway musical Call Me Madam, featuring the equally classic Ethel Merman and music by the immortal Irving Berlin.

    (And having nothing whatsoever to do with brothels)
  6. susanna76 Senior Member

    Wonderful! Thank you all so much!
  7. Hildy1 Senior Member

    English - US and Canada
    It is probably not used any more, but at some time in the past, a man might say "the madam" to mean "my wife".
    "I'll have to ask the madam about that."
  8. susanna76 Senior Member

    I've certainly heard that :). Thank you, Hildy1!
  9. JustKate

    JustKate Moderate Mod

    I hear (and use) "ma'am" far more often than "madam." (I never hear "Madame" unless someone is or wants to sound French.") But "Dear Sir or Madam" is still fine, as far as I know. What else are you supposed to call the possible lady? "Hey you"?
  10. entangledbank

    entangledbank Senior Member

    English - South-East England
    To stir in a little more confusion, Madame, but pronounced like Madam, is or used to be used in English for certain foreign wives or ladies: I can think of Madame Blavatsky, Madame Mao, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek as well-known examples.
  11. mplsray Senior Member

    The online Oxford dictionary of American English adds a definition which is not found in the British and World English edition:
    Example sentences given (click on the link given on that page) are:
    Curiously, the American version does not show the pronunciation which sounds like "madam," while the British version does, but we do indeed use that pronunciation.
  12. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    Just to add... Madam is the proper title for prominent women in American government, such as former Madam Secretary (of State) Hillary Clinton, Madam Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Sonia Sotomayor (U.S. Supreme Court), former Madam Speaker (of the House) Nancy Pelosi, and the like.
  13. mplsray Senior Member

    Not in the case of U.S. Supreme Court justices, according to this Wikipedia article:
  14. natkretep

    natkretep Moderato con anima (English Only)

    English (Singapore/UK), basic Chinese
    There's some relevant discussion in this thread:

    Mdm (Madam) Tan
    Also, we talk about someone being a 'right proper madam' to refer to someone with airs.
  15. JamesM

    JamesM à la Mod (English Only)

    Interesting. I've found a fairly recent article from Canada that refers to Barbara Fisher as Madam Justice.
  16. susanna76 Senior Member

    I find the Madame Blavatsky, Madame Mao, and Madam Justice observations very interesting. But Madame Blavatsky is pronounced [madam] or [muh-dahm]?
  17. Hildy1 Senior Member

    English - US and Canada
    On the Supreme Court of Canada website, the male justices are listed as "The Honourable Justice Mr. [name]". The only female one, other than the chief justice, is "The Honourable Madam Justice [name]". The chief justice is "The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, P.C., Chief Justice".
  18. mplsray Senior Member

    Speakers are consistent in how they pronounce Madame in those cases. Either pronunciation may be used, but the pronunciation would be either madam in all of your examples or muh-dahm.
  19. susanna76 Senior Member

    Thank you, mplsray! I have to say I find that very surprising!
  20. mplsray Senior Member

    I made an error, thinking you were discussing only the pronunciation of Madame. That can have two pronunciations, but Madam/madam has only the one, /ˈmædəm/. So a person could say Madame Tussaud as /məˈdɑm/ but Madam Secretary as /ˈmædəm/.

    I think anyone who pronounces Madame the same as madam would still pronounce the name of the French sandwich croque-madame as including /məˈdɑm/.
  21. susanna76 Senior Member

    Thank you, mplsray!

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