English English language Etymology Expression Phrase origin Usage Word origin

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: No, “mistress of ceremonies” is not misleading or wrong. But it’s not strictly necessary, since there’s no rule that says a “master of ceremonies” has to be a guy.

The three dictionaries I consult the most—The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th 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.

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.

Although the term “mistress of ceremonies” isn’t uncommon (I got about 350,000 hits for it on Google), only one of the three dictionaries mentioned above has an entry for it.

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

However, the expression is much older—it was alive and well in the early 1800s. For instance, Sir Walter Scott used it in his novel Rob Roy (1817): “ ‘In that case, sir,’ she rejoined, ‘as my kinsman’s politeness seems to be still slumbering, you will permit me (though I suppose it is highly improper) to stand mistress of ceremonies.’ ”

A search of digital databases turns up slightly later examples from the 1820s. On May 20, 1823, the Rev. Charles S. Stewart, an American missionary to the Sandwich Islands, used the phrase in a diary entry  describing a “great feast” conducted annually to commemorate the death of King Tameamea:

Kamehamaru appeared to remarkable advantage, as mistress of ceremonies; and, personally, saw that no one of the large company was, in any degree, neglected.” (Extracts from Stewart’s private diaries were printed in the May 1825 issue of the Christian Advocate,  a journal of the Presbyterian church.)

And both “mistress of ceremonies” and “mistresses of ceremonies” appear several times in  Henry Dana Ward’s book Free Masonry (1828). Here’s one example, from a  passage describing a ceremony in a Masonic temple: “The mistress of ceremonies allowed to enter only the number necessary to fill the empty places.”

So the expression has a venerable history. Its older brother, “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,” Oxford says.

An early citation for the expression used in its modern sense comes from Jane Austen’s novel Northanger Abbey (written around 1798-99): “The master of the ceremonies introduced to her a very gentlemanlike young man as a partner.”

[Note: This post was updated on Jan. 1, 2015.]

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