The Grammarphobia Blog

How ‘master’ became ‘mister’

Q: I wonder how “master” became “mister,” and why “master” refers to a young man, and “mister” to an older man. Can you enlighten me?

A: We discussed the origin of “master” on the blog in 2015, but we’ll summarize it here to set the stage for the appearance of “mister” and the evolution of “master” as a term for a boy or young man.

The term “master” (spelled mægstermagester, or magister in Old English) was borrowed from Latin, where a magister was a chief, head, director, or superintendent.

The “master” spelling gradually evolved in late Old English and Middle English after the Norman Conquest, influenced by the Anglo-Norman spellings maistre and mastre.

When the word first appeared in English, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to “a person (predominantly, a man) having authority, direction or control over the action of another or others.”

The dictionary’s first written citation is from King Ælfred’s Old English translation in the late 800s of a Latin treatise by Pope Gregory I, commonly known in English as Pastoral Care:

“Ðonne he gemette ða scylde ðe he stieran scolde, hrædlice he gecyðde ðæt he wæs magister & ealdormonn” (“When he saw the sin that he should punish, he showed that he was master and lord”).

In late Old English and early Middle English, “master” was also a title prefixed to a man’s surname or first name, initially for men in the gentry and later for men in general.

The earliest example in the OED is from the Exeter Book, a collection of Anglo-Saxon writing at the Exeter Cathedral Library.

An undated Exeter document, perhaps written in the late 10th or early 11th century, refers to “mestre Odo, & mestre Leowines.”

The next citation is from The Owl and the Nightingale, a Middle English poem believed written in the late 12th or early 13th century:

“Maister nichole of guldeforde, / He is wis and war [wary] of worde.” (We inserted the bracketed definition.)

In late Middle English, people began using “Mr.,” an abbreviated version of “master,” as a title “prefixed to the surname or first name of a man without a higher, honorific, or professional title,” according to the OED.

The abbreviation sometimes appeared  with a dot and sometimes without one in the early days. Today, it’s dotted in the US and dotless in the UK.

The first Oxford example is from Letters and Papers of John Shillingford, Mayor of Exeter 1447-50, edited by Stuart Archibald Moore in 1871. The citation, dated sometime before 1449, uses “Maister” and “Mr.” as titles:

“Maister John Gorewyll Maister John Waryn Mr William Filham Sr Richard Kelyer and other som tyme chanons of þe [the] said churche.”

(We’ve gone to the original document to expand the citation, and we’ve added the bracketed definition.)

Initially, the OED says, “Mr.” was an unspoken “graphic abbreviation,” but it later developed “a distinct spoken realization.”

When people began speaking it, “Mr.” was pronounced like “master,” but “from the 16th cent. it was, at least in rapid or careless speech, treated proclitically, with consequent alteration of the vowel of the first syllable,” according to the dictionary.

By “proclitically,” the OED means that the pronunciation of “Mr.” gradually evolved from “master” to “mister” over the 16th and 17th centuries as the term attached itself to the following word.

“Hence at the beginning of the 18th cent. master and Mr were already regarded as distinct words,” the OED says, and “mister” was “merely an occasional rendering of the pronunciation of the word of which ‘Mr’ is the accepted spelling.”

When the word represented by “Mr.” first showed up in writing in the early 1500s, according to OED citations, it was spelled “myster,” which probably reflected the way the term was pronounced at the time.

The dictionary’s earliest example is from a 1523 entry in the Account Book of the Hospital of St. John, Canterbury, 1510–1556:

“Paied to a carpenter by grete for mendyng of Myster Collettis house.”

The first written example in the OED for the word spelled “mister” is from a March 15, 1642, letter by the wife of the mayor of Waterford, Ireland, during the Irish Confederate Wars:

“This passadge of Mister Richard Buttler hapened the day affter the Twelve Day.”

While “mister” was developing in the 16th century as a prefixed title for a man, the dictionary says, the word “master” took on a new sense, “as a prefix to the name of a boy or young man not considered old enough to be called ‘Mr.’ ”

At first, the child’s title was often expanded to “little master” or “young master,” especially when used by servants in referring to the children of the gentry or nobility.

For example, the OED cites a reference to “yonge mayster Dauyd” in The Answere to the Fyrst Parte of the Poysened Booke, a 1533 religious tract by Thomas More.

And this example, without a modifier, is from a letter written around the same time to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of King Henry VIII, by Henry Dowes, tutor to Cromwell’s son Gregory:

“It pleased your Maistershipp to give me in charge not onlie to give diligent attendaunce uppon Maister Gregory, but also to instructs hime w’t good letters, honeste maners, pastymes of Instruments, and such other qualities as sholde be for hime mete [fitting] and conveniente.”

(We’ve expanded the OED citation to get in more of the interesting letter, and added the bracketed definition.)

The dictionary notes that “master” took on this juvenile sense “subsequent to the phonetic separation of mister,” though apparently before the word “mister” actually appeared in writing.

Once “mister” was established as a courtesy title for a man, “master” was free to take on the new role of a courtesy title for a boy.

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