It is well established in Star Trek: The Next Generation that female superior officers are normally referred to as sir. This is applied to Dr. Crusher, Counselor Troi, Cmdr. Shelby, Maj. Kira, Lt. Dax, and numerous admirals. This obviously fits in well with the egalitarian ideals of Star Trek.

This convention is made explicit in "Thine Own Self":

DATA: Counsellor, have you been promoted in my absence?

TROI: That's right. Which means from now on you can call me sir.

DATA: Yes, sir.

In Addition, the first episode of Star Trek: Voyager, "Caretaker" contains this dialog:

KIM: Thank you, sir.

JANEWAY: Mister Kim, at ease before you sprain something. Ensign, despite Starfleet protocol, I don't like being addressed as sir.

KIM: I'm sorry, ma'am.

JANEWAY: Ma'am is acceptable in a crunch, but I prefer Captain. We're getting ready to leave. Let me show you to the bridge.

which again establishes that sir is the norm, although Capt. Janeway doesn't prefer it.

Did this usage of the honorific sir start with ST: TNG or does it predate TNG in either sci-fi or the real world?


Related: What's the earliest in-universe reference to a female superior officer as "sir"?

  • Perhaps one of the TOS era films? – ThePopMachine Aug 31 '15 at 15:24
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    Related real-world explanation: english.stackexchange.com/questions/121727/… (The answer is that this doesn't seem to have a precedent in real-world militaries) – KutuluMike Aug 31 '15 at 15:28
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    Having been in the military, this always gets on my nerves. Other shows do it to (the female Captain on Castle insists on being called sir). There was even a IRL female Senator who got annoyed at a military officer for calling her Ma'am and a male Senator sir. Ma'am and Sir are equivalent levels of respect in the military. One is for females and the other is for males. The only time I would have ever called a female officer "Sir" is if I was really pissed off at her. – Kevin Aug 31 '15 at 19:18
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    Similarly, I've always been mystified at some people's opinions that gender-specific titles are somehow wrong. Words like actress, waitress, and stewardess aren't demeaning or belittling towards female professionals; in fact, I'm of the opinion that avoiding gender-specific terms only reinforces the "female= inferior" stereotype. – Dan Henderson Sep 1 '15 at 13:43
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    @DanHenderson I'm going to necromance this thread to address your mystification. First off: as a woman, I appreciate that you care in the first place—👍. Let me explain my reasoning. Take the the word "actress": "actor" is already a gender-neutral word. Why have a separate word for a female actor, unless the actor's gender is considered contextually crucial? More striking to me is this, though: males are still referred to by the original term. Syntactically, I parse this as "a male actor is the default, a woman actor is a derivation". It doesn't offend me. It just seems logically dissonant. 🖖 – natchiketa Jun 3 '17 at 20:27
up vote 23 down vote accepted

Professor De Witt Douglas Kilgore, a specialist in English literature and cultural representation at Indiana University, has done significant research on race, gender, and equality in speculative fiction. In his book Astrofuturism: Science, Race, and Visions of Utopia in Space (2010), he attributes calling females "sir" to Star Trek :

The Star Trek franchise reinforced this idea by the convention of awarding its female officers the honorific "sir". This innovation was established in the second Star Trek film, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, dir. Nicholas Meyer, Paramount, 1982.

Likely, Kilgore is actually making reference to the use of "Mister Saavik" in the film, and perhaps equating it to "sir". At the very least, as "mister" is a male title, it foreshadows the use of "sir" in later Star Trek works. In any case, Kilgore's research suggests that we owe the use of "sir" as a bi-gender honorific to Star Trek, whether it first occurred in The Wrath of Khan or a few years later in TNG, at least as far as science fiction is concerned.

  • It just occurred to me that at the time, I sort of thought it was strange, but that maybe Saavik was just referred to as mister because of some weird quirk to do with her being Vulcan. – ThePopMachine Aug 29 '16 at 20:49

Star Trek: The Next Generation seems to be the earliest case (that I can find) of a female superior officer being formally addressed as "Sir". However, it's not the first case of a female officer being addressed using a masculine honorific.

In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Lt. Saavik is routinely addressed as "Mister Saavik" by Kirk. As a superior officer, Captain Kirk would not address a male Lieutenant as "Sir" but rather as "Mister" (c.f. Mister Spock, Mister Scott, etc.). He uses the same protocol with his female officers.

As far as The Original Series is concerned, Kirk seems to be in the habit of addressing female subordinates by their rank, while he usually addresses male subordinates by the general "Mister". I did find one example where McCoy addresses Nurse Chapel as "Miss":

CHAPEL: Doctor, that's not all you're going to do?

MCCOY: Miss Chapel.

CHAPEL: Doctor, there is more of it in him, entwined all through his body.

MCCOY: Miss Chapel, if you cannot assist me as required, call another nurse in here. But do one or the other now.

At this point (Operation: Annihilate!, S01E29), I believe Bones is a Lt. Commander, and Chief Medical Officer, while Chapel is a Lieutenant and Head Nurse, so he does outrank her.

I'm actually having trouble finding anything prior to the 1960s with female military officers, so if there is any precedent for it pre-Star Trek, it's not very well known.

These days, women in command is common in fiction (as in reality), and the "call me Sir" trope is very popular. It's not isolated to science fiction, either, as I've seen it on both NCIS and Castle. However, it does seem to be an entirely fictional conceit, at least according to this English.SE post:

https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/121727/can-sir-be-used-to-address-female-officers

In every case that I have witnessed (where the speakers are using English), women are addressed as "ma'am."

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    I'm not sure the experience of one person on english.stackexchange.com rises to the level of evidence this doesn't exist in the real world today. Something stronger would be a little more convincing. – ThePopMachine Aug 31 '15 at 16:43
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    I could find no evidence that it happens, and anecdotal evidence that it does not, so I included it. I also conducted an informal poll of the (3) veteran in my office, they all agreed :) – KutuluMike Aug 31 '15 at 17:13
  • No problem, but it's not inconceivable to me that other conventions may be in place in other countries or particularly in multinational bodies like the UN or NATO which encompass personnel who speak diverse languages, but operate in many situations in English. – ThePopMachine Aug 31 '15 at 17:28
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    I added an answer to the English SE question which cites the US Army Field manual. – March Ho Sep 1 '15 at 3:47

I was a commissioned officer in the USNavy from the mid 70's onward. I reached full commander just before a medical discharge. We called other male officers of equal or lower rank as "Mr" and female officers of equal or lower rank by their rank.

Superior male officers were called either "sir" or by their rank. Female officers of superior rank were called either "ma'am" or by their rank. I never heard of anything contrary to the above.

If one wanted to be cocky, they may have called a female superior "sir". Repercussions would very likely have been negative!

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    Welcome to Science Fiction and Fantasy SE! Thank you very much for sharing your first-hand experience - this is a great first post! – Gallifreyan Aug 29 '16 at 19:22
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    While interesting personal experience, this does not actually answer the question – Jason Baker Aug 29 '16 at 19:35
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    In the light of the many other similarities between the practices of Star Fleet and 20th/21st century navies (such as ranks and insignia), I think that accepted practice in the US Navy can be considered relevant (although not conclusive). – Blackwood Aug 29 '16 at 20:06

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