Q: Growing up in Louisiana in the ’40s and ’50s, I frequently encountered the use of “Mizz” for a lady of unknown marital status. It was commonly used to address teachers. I found it very amusing in the ’60s when “Mizz” suddenly took on the “Ms.” spelling and a feminist connotation.
A: The term “Ms.” was used as a courtesy title for a woman long before you were in knee pants and probably before your father was in knee pants too.
I discussed this on WNYC last month and cited the efforts of the linguist and lexicographer Benjamin Zimmer to track down the (so far) earliest known sighting, or antedating, of the term.
Zimmer, the executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus, has traced the term back to Nov. 10, 1901. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he or another word sleuth finds an even earlier example before long.
In “Hunting the Elusive First ‘Ms.,’ ” an article for his interactive reference site, Zimmer describes the detective work involved in finding the usage in the Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican.
If you can read the tiny and rather blurred print of the original news clipping, which Zimmer reproduces, you’ll see that writer who uses “Ms.” recommends the pronunciation you grew up with:
“For oral use, it might be rendered as ‘Mizz,’ which would be a close parallel to the practice, long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs. alike.”
Back then, of course, the use of “Ms.” was not a feminist issue, but one of convenience. Here’s how the Oxford English Dictionary describes the term now:
“Ms has been adopted esp. in formal and business contexts as an alternative to Mrs and Miss principally as a means to avoid having to specify a woman’s marital status (regarded as irrelevant, intrusive, or potentially discriminatory).”
By the way, the OED also has entries for “Miz” and “Mizz.”
The earliest OED citation for “Miz,” described as “a southern U.S. pronunciation of Miss,” is from an 1858 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger magazine: “I soon becum a grate favrit with all the ladis, aspeshly Miz Hanscum.”
The “Mizz” entry describes the term as “representing the spoken realization of Ms.”
If you’re interested in reading more, check out a blog item I wrote a few years ago about whether or not to use a dot with “Ms.” And don’t forget to look at Zimmer’s interesting article.
Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.