My Favorite Four-Letter Word

Anne - Oxford, Mississippi
Entered on November 26, 2007
Age Group: 18 - 30
Themes: humility, respect
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It’s not the most offensive four-letter word, but my mother still cringes when she hears it. She begs me to keep it far from my mouth. But I believe in saying “ma’am.” And “sir.” These have the power, I’ve realized, to change my life.

As a child, I used the words daily. I imitated the rhythm of my parents’ sentences, heard that “yes” and “no” were incomplete on their own. Past college, I figured it was insulting. Who wanted a twenty-two-year-old woman to call him sir? So I cut the words from my speech and apologized if they snuck back in.

Now I see the need to bring these words back. Our culture has abandoned humility. We’ve become arrogant and self-centered, and respect has been lost in the process. Our focus is on getting ahead, getting noticed, and getting more stuff. These words act as reminders, slowing our speech long enough for us not to forget to honor those older than ourselves, those more accomplished.

But I also believe that “ma’am” and “sir” have power past their traditional cases of age or authority. Remembering to respect my boss or the policeman who pulls me over, those are easy. These words challenge me not to forget the less obvious, those that I often take for granted. The gas station attendant. The cab driver. The exterminator who (hopefully) just rid my house of bugs. In the past, I’ve felt entitled to these people’s service. I have expected them to use “ma’am” on me, but I don’t traditionally reciprocate.

I want to be someone who puts hierarchies and authority second to human decency. Adding two little words to my speech forces me to take the time to appreciate these forgotten people. It forces me to remember that I never have the right to treat another person as inferior.

Some people might say that if we use ma’am all the time, the word loses its meaning. I don’t see it that way. Spanish and French languages have pronouns used especially for communicating with someone the speaker doesn’t know. These words still hold significance; they still show respect. Besides, thank you is applicable whatever of the age or authority of the listener, and it hasn’t lost its power.

Believing in ma’am and sir, that’s believing in respect, believing that everyone deserves to be treated with courtesy, and that without it, human relationships will only get worse. These two words are small additions to my vocabulary, but they reflect a major change. They show I am making humility and respect priorities in my life—regardless of authority or age. Because of this, consideration has made a comeback in my attitude and my world. Who knows how this country could change if we once again valued the humble, the polite, the civil?

I believe “sir” is a reminder of the humility that can bring this change.

I believe “ma’am,” that four-letter word, has the power to transform our lives.