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“Calling me Sir is like putting an elevator in an outhouse. It don’t belong” -spoken by the character named Emmett in the 1989 cult classic film Road House.
Sir: a man entitled to be addressed as sir —used as a title before the given name of a knight or baronet and formerly sometimes before the given name of a priest.
Origin: Middle English, from sire; First Known Use: 13th century
From: Merriam Webster
As the above etymology explains, the word "sir" comes from a medieval French word. Feudal European societies were extremely hierarchical; titles and rank were part of everyday interactions that no one questioned. In England, the tradition lives on with the enduring institution of knighthood. While the title of Knight is not taken as seriously as it was seven centuries ago, it remains a respectful homage to the old tradition.
The same, of course goes for “ma’am,” a variation on the French “madame,” the counterpart to “monsieur.” “Mister” is another variation on this. All of these forms of address date back to the days of lords, ladies, knights and serfs. In the ostensibly more casual United States, there are still some hierarchies, such as the military, where addressing those of higher rank as "Sir" is compulsory. The real question is, why is this title still used in everyday, casual discourse? Why is a customer waiting on line to buy a mochachino addressed in the manner appropriate to a medieval lord?
Of course, it’s common in modern society for people to have a nostalgic reverence for the days of old, which can be seen in Renaissance fairs and the countless books and films romanticizing Medieval times. This makes it easy to forget that the strict hierarchies of those times (which actually harken back to even older eras, such as Rome) did not provide the vast majority of people with a life that was very glamorous or romantic.
Titles such as "Sir" and “Ma’am” (along with their European counterparts) are something of an anomaly in an otherwise informal cultural climate. Their most common usage today is probably in the business context, such as in retail businesses. It’s ostensibly a sign of respect to address customers or clients in this manner.
However, looking at it from the other side of the counter, so to speak --that is, from the standpoint of people who feel compelled to say "Sir" and "Ma'am" to strangers all day long- is it not a little demeaning and, quite literally, suggestive of lower social rank relative to those they are addressing? It's worth noting that service jobs are among the fastest growing sector of the economy, at least in the United States. This suggests the possibility that the continued use of such formal titles represents a subtle acknowledgment that the days of a hierarchical, feudal society are far from gone.
We can distinguish two types of usage. In one case, when you are trying to get the attention of an adult whose name you don't know, there is not really any socially acceptable alternative. For example, "Sir, you forgot your change." The other type of usage is where it is perfectly obvious who is being addressed, yet the speaker feels it necessary to put in superfluous "Sirs.” or “Ma’ams.” This type of obsequiousness is common at restaurants, hotels and other situations where formality is called for.
This is also the way people in authority, such as police officers, will address civilians in everyday circumstances (i.e. when they aren’t arresting or shouting commands at someone). Significantly, there isn’t all that much middle ground between “Sir, please step out the automobile” and “On the ground with your hands behind your head!” Titles such as “Sir” and “Ma’am,” we can see, inhabit that realm of politeness in a world where the alternative is often coercion, if not violence.
There is yet another angle from which to approach this. "Sir" and “Ma’am” convey something other than respect —they also denote boundaries. Not only a boundary of rank, but of familiarity. The person you are addressing as "Sir" may or may not be of a higher rank than you, but he is almost certainly a stranger, someone outside one’s social circle or subculture.
Thus, you are especially likely to be “Sirred” or “Ma’amed” by people from closely knit cultures not your own -which could mean people from another land or even a tightly knit small town in your own country. In such cases, these titles, apart from any polite respect they convey, are also reminders that your are not a local or one of them. In other words, formal means of address can be a form of cliquishness, a way to exclude outsiders.
In an increasingly anonymous world, be called "Sir" or “Ma’am” can also contribute to the general sense of anomie. In some science fiction dystopias, people don't have names but numbers. Yet numbers are at least unique; if you were to be addressed by your social security number, for example, that would at least be a unique number. "Sir” or “Ma’am,” on the other hand, are completely generic. Is this really superior?
If this vestige from feudalism has managed to survive and flourish into the 21st Century, it does not seem likely that it's going to disappear anytime soon. If we are going to evolve beyond them, viable alternatives are needed. After all, you have to call someone whose name you don't know something. There are alternatives, of course, but none are ideal. Somehow, there are more potential options for men, at least in relatively informal circumstances.
“Dude,” “Guy,” Brother” or even just “Man’ are commonly used, though all would be considered too informal or slangy for business. For women, even these options are sketchier. “Sister” is sometimes used, though this tends to be associated with the nunnery (more than “brother” is associated with monks; if anything, it conjures up images of the depression and “Brother, can you spare a dime?”) In black and hippy subcultures, “Brother” and “Sister” and even “Mama” are sometimes used.
Conversely, there is really no circumstance where you can address a woman who is stranger as “Hey, Woman,” the way you can get away with saying “Hey, Man…” The dearth of alternatives is really another topic, though. The real point of this inquiry is to examine the persistence of such anachronistic manners of address in modern society. As any linguist or anthropologist can attest to, words matter. If we are still addressing each other in blatantly hierarchical ways, that says something fundamental about society.
It might be easier to simply pass off “sir" and “ma’am” as nothing more than words that people have continued to use out of habit for lack of widely accepted alternatives. Yet it would be naive to dismiss the feudal associations, especially when we are living in a time when the national economy in the U.S. (as well as the UK, which uses similar forms of address) is becoming more feudal in terms of wealth distribution, income inequality and the rapid growth of the service sector relative to other types of jobs. In other words, the lack of evolution in our language can be seen as a symptom of similar stagnation in society at large.