The Grammarphobia Blog

On mayors and mayoresses

Q: Do you think that using the word “mayoress” is offensive nowadays? Should I use “mayor” whether the leader of the group who governs a town is male or female?

A: We’d describe the use of “mayoress” today for a female mayor as dated, but some people might describe it as offensive, sexist, or politically incorrect.

We’ve checked five standard dictionaries and none of them find fault with the usage. However, we wouldn’t use it ourselves, and we wouldn’t recommend that you do either.

We discussed this issue briefly back in 2006 when we answered a question about whether a woman is an “actor” or an “actress.”

“We seem to be getting away from ‘ess’ and ‘ix’ endings to differentiate women from men,” we wrote then. “We no longer use ‘aviatrix,’ ‘executrix,’ ‘stewardess,’ and so on.”

We noted that this tendency may have something to do with linguistic simplification as well as gender sensitivity.

“Languages have a tendency to simplify and drop syllables or letters,” we wrote. “In this case, though, the advent of the women’s movement has certainly speeded up the process.”

When “mayoress” first showed up in English the mid-1400s, it referred to “a woman holding high office,” but that sense of the word died out, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In the early 1500s, the word came to mean “the wife of a mayor” or “a woman nominated to fulfil the ceremonial duties of a mayor’s wife.”

The earliest example in the OED, from Robert Fabyan’s New Cronycles of Englande and of Fraunce  (1516), refers to a “Mayresse and her Susters Aldermennes wyfes.” (The citation itself is dated from sometime before 1513.)

The latest example—from Fairs, Feasts and Frolics, a 1989 book by Julia Smith about customs in Yorkshire—refers to “the dean and chapter, the mayor and mayoress and the city council.”

A similar term, “lady mayoress,” meaning “the spouse of a Lord Mayor” or “a person who accompanies a Lord Mayor on official occasions,” also showed up in the 1500s.

The dictionary’s first citation for this term is from a 1537 entry in the Privy Purse Expenses Princess Mary: “Bonetts bought of my Lady meyres of london for new yers gyfts.”

The most recent citation is from a July 26, 2002, issue of the Times of London: “Every Lady Mayoress of London does charity work.”

It wasn’t until the late 1800s, the OED says, that the term “mayoress” was used to mean “a woman holding mayoral office; a female mayor.”

Oxford says the new sense of the word originated in the US and is “not in official use in England and Wales and certain other countries.”

The first example of the new usage in the OED is from The Employments of Women: A Cyclopædia of Woman’s Work (1863), by Virginia Penny:

“Mrs. N. Smith was recently elected mayoress in Oskaloosa, Iowa, the first time that office was ever filled by a lady.”

As for “mayor,” English adopted it from Anglo-Norman and Old French, but the ultimate source is maior, Latin for greater, which also gave us “major.”

By the way, we live in a small town in New England and our “mayor” is a “first selectman,” a title she prefers to “first selectwoman.” If we had mayors in our neck of the woods, she’d undoubtedly be a “mayor,” not a “mayoress.”

Update (August 21, 2013): A reader of the blog, and a fellow admirer of E. F. Benson’s hilarious “Lucia” novels, writes to remind us that in Trouble for Lucia (1939), the heroine has been elected mayor of Tilling, and her archrival, Miss Mapp, gets herself appointed mayoress.  Tilling, by the way, was based on Rye, in East Sussex, where Benson lived and where he served as mayor in the 1930s.

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