The Grammarphobia Blog

Mistresses and other women

Q: I’m surprised that the term “mistress” is still used in the New York Times, as in this recent example: “Jimmy Goldsmith was an inveterate keeper of mistresses.” It’s a very antiquated notion. Care to weigh in?

A: You’re right that the word “mistress” shows up a lot in the Times. A search of the newspaper’s archive turns up nearly 70,000 examples since 1851, including almost 1,500 over the last 12 months.

Many of the older examples refer to a woman who has power, authority, or ownership (a schoolmistress, postmistress, pet’s mistress, mistress of a household, and so on).

However, nearly all the newer examples refer to the sense you’re asking about—a woman who has a sexual relationship with a married man who’s not her husband, often involving material support.

When “mistress” entered English around 1330, derived from words in Anglo-Norman and Middle French, it referred to a governess, but that sense is now obsolete.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “mistress” soon came to mean either “the female head of a family, household, or other establishment” or “a woman holding such a position in conjunction with a male counterpart.”

By the end of the 1300s, according to OED citations, the term could also refer to “a woman who employs others in her service” or “a woman who has authority over servants, attendants, or slaves.”

We’ll skip the many other senses of “mistress” and get to the one that strikes you as antiquated.

When “mistress” took a disreputable turn in the 1400s, it initially referred to “a woman notorious for some act,” but the OED describes this sense of the word as obsolete.

By the 1600s, according to the dictionary, it was being used to mean “a woman other than his wife with whom a man has a long-lasting sexual relationship.”

Here’s an early example from a sermon (written sometime before 1631) by John Donne: “Those women, whom the Kings were to take for their Wives, and not for Mistresses, (which is but a later name for Concubines).”

Getting back to your question, we don’t find “mistress” a particularly “antiquated notion.” Yes, the word has been around for quite a while, but so have mistresses.

Is there a better term for them? We can’t think of one. “Girlfriend”? “Concubine”? “Paramour”? “”Other woman”? “Fancy woman”? We’ll stick with “mistress.”

A more interesting subject may be the disparity in the number of pejorative sexual words for women and men.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language discusses this subject in a  usage note in its fourth edition (the usage note doesn’t appear to the fifth edition).

“English has no shortage of terms for women whose behavior is viewed as licentious,” the dictionary says, “but it is difficult to come up with a list of comparable terms used of men.”

AH notes that Julia Penelope, a language researcher, “stopped counting after she reached 220 such labels for women, both current and historical, but managed to locate only 20 names for promiscuous men.”

Another researcher, Murial R. Schultz, “found more than 500 slang terms for prostitute but could find just 65 for the male terms whoremonger and pimp,” the dictionary adds.

“A further imbalance appears in the connotations of many of these terms,” AH says. “While the terms generally applying only to women, like tramp and slut, are almost always strongly negative, corresponding terms used for men, such as stud and Casanova, often carry positive associations.”

The usage note points out that “many of the negative terms used for women derive from words that once had neutral or even positive associations.”

“For instance, the word mistress, now mainly used to refer to a woman who is involved in an extramarital sexual relationship, originally served simply as a neutral counterpart to mister or master,” AH says. “The term madam, while still a respectful form of address, has had sexual connotations since the early 1700s and has been used to refer to the owner of a brothel since the early 1900s.”

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