Gray Matter


English Honorific Titles and Odd Usage

RT Cunningham | August 12, 2020 (UTC) | Culture

English honorific titlesMost people in America are familiar with English honorific titles (also called name prefixes) like Mr., Mrs. and Ms. Most are also familiar with “sir” and “ma’am” when addressing a person of higher authority.

The Philippines adopted the same usage somewhat some time in the past, but it’s very odd to listen to someone addressed with an honorific title there. It takes some getting used to. Filipino English is different from American English and I’m going to try to explain some of what I mean.

English Honorific Titles Used Oddly

I could get into the history of word usage, but it would be incredibly boring. If you want to read more about English honorifics, the Wikipedia page on it is pretty good.

Many English words are spoken correctly by Filipinos, but “ma’am” isn’t one of them. It sounds like “mom”. When my younger son started going to nursing school, many years ago, he was told to address the male teachers as “sir” and then the first name. With female teachers, it was “ma’am” and then the first name. In fact, calling them Mr. and Ms. was considered an insult. I thought it was just a college thing. I thought wrong.

In places where someone needs to call me by name, and I’m a customer, they call me “Mr. Richard”. Richard is my first name, not my last. It took me years to get used to it. It didn’t bother my wife as much to be called “Ma’am Josephine” or “Ma’am Josie”.

One custom remains the same. If someone doesn’t know the name of the person they’re addressing, they use “sir” or “ma’am” as a standalone title. They want to show respect and that’s the best way of doing it.

Other American English Oddities

From what I understand, it’s perfectly acceptable to call a woman of respect “madam” in England. It’s an insult in the United States because “madam” usually refers to a woman in charge of a whorehouse or bordello. It doesn’t matter if “ma’am” is derived from “madam”.

Without going back to the Wikipedia page, I can’t tell you much about the differences. When I was growing up, I was told to address people as “sir”, “ma’am”, “Mr.” or “Mrs.”, unless I knew the woman to be single, in which case it was “Miss”. Somewhere along the line, women started demanding “Ms.” (pronounced “miz”) regardless of marital status. It must have had something to do with women’s rights, equality or some such nonsense.

Word usage isn’t the only difference, as I found out when setting up operating systems while living in the Philippines. The dates would display the way I was used to seeing them when doing it in the United States, but a bit backwards when doing it in the Philippines.

March 1, 2016, would display as “03/01/2016” in the United States but would display as “01/03/2016” in the Philippines. I had to specifically edit certain settings to keep it the way I was accustomed to seeing it. My bank passbooks are printed in the Filipino English format, confusing me at times.

I hope to share some more of the differences between American English and Filipino English as time goes by. At the moment, I can’t think of any but I blame that on getting accustomed to certain things and ignoring them. Either that or it’s just me getting old.


The origins of may honorific titles go back centuries. As I mentioned, “ma’am” is derived from “madam”. You may not know that “mister” is derived from “master”. “Missus”, “miss” and “Ms.” are all derived from “mistress”. If you read history, you should know that “master” and “mistress” were commonly used for people who didn’t have other formal titles.

Today, “master” can be considered a pejorative in many cases and “mistress” means the female lover instead of the lady of the house.

Photo Attribution: Наталия Когут from Pixabay
Edited and updated. Originally published at one of my other websites in April 2016.

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