Sir / Ma'am / ???
November 16, 2009 12:18 PM   Subscribe

What's the gender-neutral equivalent to "Sir" and "Ma'am"?

I'm writing a story (well, a game, really) that contains a character, neither male nor female, whose male/female counterparts of the same rank (captain) are addressed as "Sir" and "Ma'am" respectively.

What mode of address do I use for this character? I imagine that there is no official answer, so I'd like your help in making up a good one. It needs to not stick out, and ideally have some kind of underlying rationale.
posted by Zarkonnen to Writing & Language (26 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
 
What about just plain "Captain?"
posted by oinopaponton at 12:19 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would probably just use the rank. That's R. Lee Ermey prefers anyway...
posted by tadellin at 12:20 PM on November 16, 2009


Gentleperson, I suppose.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:21 PM on November 16, 2009


or Gentlebeing.

Frankly, knowing human beings, they'd pick a gender and impose it for ease. Which the character could become frustrated with for a minor plot point.
posted by Ironmouth at 12:22 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I liked how Battlestar Galactica used "sir" for all leaders, male and female, but reserved more obviously gendered words (madame) for a particular sex.

If you want something that really sticks out more than "Captain," I think you'll have to tell us a bit about your game. What sort of technological and social settings exist in your story's world?
posted by metalheart at 12:22 PM on November 16, 2009


Guv'nor
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:23 PM on November 16, 2009


I would posit that they would be referred to as "Sir", given that male is seen as the default and female is seen as the exception.
posted by muddgirl at 12:24 PM on November 16, 2009


Also don't forget to consider using a word from another language. That can easily be tied into ideas of previous wars, integration, all sorts of things.
posted by metalheart at 12:24 PM on November 16, 2009


Battlestar Galactica used "sir" for all leaders

In Star Trek: Voyager there was a bit in an early episode (the pilot?) where Janeway, the female Captain, told an ensign something along the lines of, "I know the Starfleet protocol is to address superior officers of either gender as 'sir' but I prefer to be called 'captain'."
posted by dirtdirt at 12:28 PM on November 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


...of course now I feel a bit dense given that "Captain" does indeed slot in nicely as a substitute in all cases... Thank you all!
posted by Zarkonnen at 12:29 PM on November 16, 2009


boss?
posted by lester at 12:41 PM on November 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


given that male is seen as the default and female is seen as the exception

That might or might not be the case in a species that has (at least) three genders, though.
posted by Sidhedevil at 12:53 PM on November 16, 2009


If the third gender was prevalent enough to change the dynamic, then it should of course have its own honorific. I assumed this was a one-off thing, like an asexual android or an intersex individual who is choosing neither neither "default" sex.
posted by muddgirl at 12:58 PM on November 16, 2009


And of course if the depicted society were matriarchal then the default honorific would presumably be "Ma'am".
posted by muddgirl at 12:59 PM on November 16, 2009


If you're looking for a title used by underlings, how about "Skipper"?

The Japanese use the word 艦長 kanchou that way. It's a proper form of address for the officer commanding a warship no matter what formal rank that officer holds, used by subordinates of that officer.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:59 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Citizen!
posted by electroboy at 1:01 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I'm thinking "Sir" too. Consider actor/actress.
posted by wackybrit at 1:01 PM on November 16, 2009


I like Patrick O'Brian's use of the term "shipmate" to cover all eventualities
posted by charlesminus at 1:41 PM on November 16, 2009


Informally, "Chief."
posted by ROTFL at 1:46 PM on November 16, 2009


I'm a fan of "sir" in this case. It's been done in a lot of sci-fi.
posted by rokusan at 1:53 PM on November 16, 2009


Fearless Leader
posted by bearwife at 2:00 PM on November 16, 2009


I'm a fan of "sir" in this case. It's been done in a lot of sci-fi.

I'm a huge trekkie and it drives me bonkers that they do that. I think addressing by rank is a great and much less irritating compromise.
posted by Kimberly at 2:19 PM on November 16, 2009


"Gentleperson, I suppose."

Not as a singular form of address... when you address a group of women and one man it's properly "Ladies and Sir", not "Ladies and Gentleman". Or for 1 woman with men "Gentlemen and Madam". (Reference)
posted by Jahaza at 3:05 PM on November 16, 2009


DCI Jane Tennison: So what do you think?
DI Frank Burkin: About what, sir?
DCI Jane Tennison: My voice suddenly got lower, has it? Maybe my knickers are too tight. Listen, I like to be called Governor or The Boss. I don't like Ma'am - I'm not the bloody Queen. So take your pick.


Prime Suspect.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:57 PM on November 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


I don't know how much realism you're going for, but typically a subordinate would not address their superior by rank. Things can get a little confusing because "Captain" is also a job title — the person commanding a ship is addressed as 'Captain' regardless of rank when they are in that role — but in that sense they're not being addressed by rank.

In most situations it would be considered a breach of etiquette for a junior officer to address a senior one by rank in direct conversation (when not making an introduction).

This doesn't hold for General or Flag Officers, though — they get addressed as "General" or "Admiral" rather than "Sir" or "Ma'am". (E.g., if Lieutenant Smith tells you to do something, you say "yes, Sir," but if General Smith tells you to do it, you say "yes, General." I believe it's the same way with Admirals.) And as an aside, apparently Senators are the same way.

I thought BSG's solution to the gender-neutrality issue (use 'Sir' universally) was interesting, and not a bad way of doing things at all. You have gender-neutral ranks as the mode of address for a superior talking to a subordinate, and one gender-neutral honorific for subordinates responding to a superior.
posted by Kadin2048 at 6:31 PM on November 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not as a singular form of address... when you address a group of women and one man it's properly "Ladies and Sir", not "Ladies and Gentleman". Or for 1 woman with men "Gentlemen and Madam".

Perhaps this is getting too far afield from the original question, but just as a point of interest: the traditional command given at the start of the Indianapolis 500 was "Gentlemen, start your engines." When Janet Guthrie became the first female driver to qualify for the race in 1977, there was much speculation over what the starting command would be; the command actually given was "Lady and gentlemen, start your engines," which has been used since when there has been exactly one female driver. More recently, there have been 500s with more than one female qualifier, in which case the starting command has been "Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:04 AM on November 17, 2009


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