Laurie Barber | Miss, Ms or Mrs?

Honorifics: The word Mrs can be traced back to 1612. Picture: FDC

Honorifics: The word Mrs can be traced back to 1612. Picture: FDC

I had always thought Mr was a good honorific for men and Mrs for women, whether married or not, but other people disagreed, even though Mrs was once used for all women.

In recent years a concerted campaign has been underway to use Ms for women, regardless of their marital status.

The word Mrs can be traced to 1612 and it referred to mistress.

But then the word had a gradual change and mistress developed connotations that some women disliked.

My big dictionary says that in the 17th century the form Mrs for mistress fell into disuse.

It goes on to say “originally distinctive of gentlewoman, the use of the prefix has gradually extended downwards”.  I think it means that anybody, no matter how humble, can have a Mrs these days.

Some feminists, trying to find a word that defined women regardless of their marital status, sought a compromise between Mrs and Miss. They came up with the word Ms.

In 1952 the National Office of Management Associations, based in Philadelphia, decided to use Ms for all woman as a means of solving the problem of deciding who was married and who was not. “This modern style solves the age-old problem”, it said.

The word took off and various businesses stated that women employees could use Ms instead of Mrs or Miss. A few people objected.

Opinions differ on who came up with the word, or if anybody can really take the credit, or blame, depending on your point of view. In the early days of the word a fair amount of criticism prevailed, with people reluctant to use the word and critical of anybody who used it.

American author Chrysti M Smith on a book called Herbivore’s Feast says the proposal first came from a man, Roy F Baily, of Norton, Kansas. Baily said the word overcame guessing whether a woman was married or not. Smith said the word was employed for the next two decades before the feminism movement picked it up.

Other sites suggest the term was first used in The Republican, of Springfield, Massachusetts on November 10, 1901. “To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss”, The Republican said.

Stephen Murray-Smith, who died several years ago, said in his book Right Words that a sensible answer would be to ignore all honorifics. “This sensible practice is increasingly being adopted in the US and seems worthy of emulation,” he said.

Some newspaper style guides say Ms should be used only if the woman requests it.

Many men I know have become accustomed to answering to “hey you”.

lauriebarber.com; lbword@midcoast.com.au

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