Q: Your recent post about “Mr.” and “mister” aroused my curiosity about “Mrs.” and “missus.”
A: The story begins with the word “mistress,” which English adopted in the 1300s from words in Anglo-Norman and Middle French, as we noted in 2013.
The courtesy title “Mrs.” showed up in the late 1400s as a shortening of “mistress,” which meant a woman in authority or a female head of a household.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes “Mrs.” as a “title of courtesy prefixed to the surname of a married woman having no higher or professional title, often with her first name, or that of her husband.”
The first example in the OED is from a 1485 entry in the churchwardens’ accounts for the London parish of St. Mary at Hill:
“Item, a pyx [box] clothe of sipers [Cyprus] frenged with grene sylke and red … of Mres. Sucklyng’s gyfte.” (The bracketed definitions are ours.)
From the 15th to the 18th century, the abbreviation was variously spelled “Mres.,” “Mris.,” and “Mrs.” (Like “Mr.,” it 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.)
At first, writers used either the abbreviation or the full courtesy title, as in a 1463 will cited by the OED in which the testator bequeaths to “maistresse Clopton a spoon of berell” (beryl).
As with “Mr.,” the title “Mrs.” was originally a “graphic abbreviation” and later developed “a distinct spoken realization,” according to the OED.
It’s unclear when “Mrs.” began being pronounced, though the pronunciation apparently evolved proclitically (from “mistress” to “missis”), similar to that of “Mr.” (from “master” to “mister”). A proclitic is a word that changes as it attaches itself to the following word.
By the end of the 18th century, “Mrs.” was being pronounced much the way it is today.
In his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of 1791, John Walker writes that “Mrs.” as “a title of civility” should be pronounced “missis,” and that to pronounce the word as “mistress” would “appear quaint and pedantick.”
At the end of the 19th century, the predominant pronunciations were “misis” and “misiz,” as Joseph Wright notes in The English Dialect Dictionary, published from 1898 to 1905.
“The contracted pronunciation became, for the prefixed title, first a permitted colloquial licence, and ultimately the only allowable pronunciation,” the OED explains. “When this stage was reached, Mrs. became a distinct word from mistress. As to the chronology of these changes evidence is lacking.”
Although the pronunciation of “Mrs.” as MISS-uz or MISS-us has been standard since the late 18th century, the use of “missis” or “missus” as spelled-out words for a married woman is considered regional or colloquial, according to Oxford.
When the spoken form first appeared in writing in the late 1700s, it was spelled “missess.”
In the 1800s, it appeared variously as “mizzes,” “mis’ess,” “mis’s,” “misses,” “missis,” and finally “missus.”
C. T. Onions, writing in the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, describes “missis” or “missus” as a “slurred pronunc.” of “mistress” and the “oral equivalent” of “Mrs.”
The earliest written example in the OED is from Manners and Customs in the West India Islands (1790), by J. B. Moreton: “Then missess fum me wid long switch.” (The citation is from a Jamaican song about slavery.)
The next example is from Charles Dickens’s Sketches by Boz (1836): “The servant of all work, who, under the plea of sleeping very soundly, has utterly disregarded ‘Missis’s’ ringing for half an hour.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)
Finally, you didn’t ask, but we should mention that the title “Miss” (prefixed to the name of a girl or unmarried woman) is also a shortened form of “mistress.”
The first Oxford example is from a March 7, 1667, entry in The Diary of Samuel Pepys: “Little Mis Davis did dance a Jigg after the end of the play.”