The Grammarphobia Blog

Is she a master or a mistress?

Q: Isn’t “mistress of ceremonies” misleading or just plain wrong? If a woman is hosting an event, isn’t she still a “master of ceremonies”?

A: I wouldn’t say “mistress of ceremonies” is misleading or wrong, just unnecessary. It’s the result of the misperception that a “master of ceremonies” must be a guy.

The three dictionaries I consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and the Oxford English Dictionary—all define “master of ceremonies” as a person who hosts an event. That’s “a person,” not necessarily a man.

If people can’t get their heads around the idea of calling a woman a “master of ceremonies,” what’s wrong with “emcee” or “M.C.”? Or, for that matter, “host” (please, not “hostess”)?

Although the term “mistress of ceremonies” isn’t uncommon (I got more than 200,000 hits for it on Google), only one of the three dictionaries mentioned above has an entry for it.

Merriam-Webster’s, which dates the phrase to 1952, defines “mistress of ceremonies” as a woman who presides at a public ceremony or entertainment.

The OED says the word “master” was “originally applied almost exclusively to men,” but “its meaning has been extended to include women (either potentially or in fact) in many of the senses illustrated.”

American Heritage, in a usage note with its entry for “master,” cites many compounds that use the word in a gender-neutral way: “masterpiece,” “mastermind,” “master plan,” and so on.

The expression “master of ceremonies” (originally “master of the ceremonies”) first showed up in print in the early 17th century, according to the OED.

Initially, it referred to “an officer of the British royal household who superintended state ceremonies and was responsible for the enforcement of court etiquette.”

An early citation for the expression used in its modern sense is from Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey (written at the end of the 18th century): “The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner.”

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