A thank-you-ma’am is a bump or depression in a dirt or gravel road in the country, especially at an intersection. Etymologists disagree on the exact origins of the phrase, as it is ringed with folkloric and metaphoric associations. Some say the term comes from the ride itself: on an unpaved road when you hit a bump, your head nods forward as though in acknowledgment of a favor. “Thank-you-ma’am.” Other folk sources point to the horse-and-buggy days. A young man and woman might be out for a Sunday afternoon ride. A bump in the road throws the man toward the woman, where he steals a kiss. “Thanky-ma’am.” Such Sunday buggy drivers were said to seek roads full of potholes. Franklin Roosevelt spoke of “thank-you-ma’ams” as bumps in the road to recovery from the Depression. Today, some thank-you-ma’ams are put into roads intentionally to drain off excess water, and sometimes private landowners add them to slow down drivers. In The Guardian Angel by Oliver Wendell Holmes, one woman used the term this way: “‘We all have our troubles. It isn’t everybody that can ride to heaven in a C-spring shay, as my poor husband used to say; and life’s a road that’s got a good many thank-you-ma’ams to go bumpin’ over, says he.’”

Mary Swander