English English language Etymology Expression Usage Word origin Writing

From Mrs. and Miss to Ms.

Q: Your article about “Mrs.” and “missus” doesn’t mention “Ms.,” which I believe showed up in the 17th century but died out before being revived centuries later. Would you like to fill in the blanks?

A: You’re right that “Ms” (without the dot) showed up occasionally in the 1600s as an abbreviation for “mistress,” a woman in authority or a female head of a household. But the earlier abbreviation was a different species from the “Ms.” we use today.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “In the 17th cent. Ms also occurs occasionally as a graphic abbreviation for mistress.” A graphic abbreviation is one that’s seen but not heard.

The OED doesn’t include any examples of the graphic abbreviation, but Amy Louise Erickson, a historian at the University of Cambridge, has found both “Ms” and “Mm” as courtesy titles for women in a late 17th-century document.

In “Mistresses and Marriage,” a paper published in 2014 in History Workshop Journal, she cites a 1698 tax list from Shrewsbury, England, that includes the names of women, some with courtesy titles and some without. The titles were apparently used for women of some social standing.

On the tax list, the title “Mm” precedes the names of two women, one married and the other widowed, while the title “Ms” precedes the names of two others, one unmarried and one whose marital status could not be determined by Erickson. (“Mm” was presumably a graphic abbreviation for “madam,” and “Ms” for “mistress.”)

The linguist Dennis Baron, in an Aug. 16, 2010, post on the Oxford University Press blog, notes several “Ms.” sightings from the 18th and 19th centuries, but the OED doesn’t include them as examples of the modern usage.

The dictionary says the use of “Ms.” in the modern sense didn’t show up until the early 20th century. The first example in the dictionary is from the Nov. 10, 1901, issue of the Springfield (MA) Sunday Republican:

“The abbreviation ‘Ms.’ is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances. 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.”

It took dozens of years for the usage to become widespread. As Baron explains, “Ms. didn’t really take off until the politically-motivated language reforms of second-wave feminism and the cultural impact of Ms. Magazine in the 1970s.”

The OED defines the modern sense of “Ms.” as a “title of courtesy prefixed to the surname of a woman, sometimes with her first name interposed.”

The dictionary says it’s 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).”

Etymologically, Oxford says, “Ms.” is an “orthographic and phonetic blend” of “Mrs.” and “Miss.” The pronunciation of the “s” in “Ms.” as “z,” the dictionary says, “would appear to have arisen as a result of deliberate attempts to distinguish between this word and Miss.”

Although “Ms.” is not technically an abbreviation, it still has a period in American style manuals and dictionaries. In British style (as in the OED, for example), this courtesy title, like many others, has no period.

As we reported back in 2009, it was the linguist Ben Zimmer who tracked down that 1901 citation in the OED. He later singled out Sheila Michaels as the “one-woman lobbying force” in the 1960s who campaigned to make “Ms.” a feminist alternative to “Miss” and “Mrs.”

In an Oct. 23, 2009, On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, he says her advocacy finally paid off in 1970, when Gloria Steinem and other feminists endorsed the usage. Steinem then used it when she introduced Ms. magazine in 1971.

“In some quarters, recognition of Ms. was slow in coming,” Zimmer adds. “The New York Times waited until 1986 to announce that it would embrace the use of Ms. as an honorific alongside Miss and Mrs. Eighty-five years after The Sunday Republican’s unassuming contribution to our modern lexicon, The Times admitted that the ‘void in the English language’ had been filled.”

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