scarecrow Next post: Scarecrows: those anthropomorphic (not avian) symbols of the season

Sofa, settee, or couch? Previous Post: Sofa, settee, or couch?

What is the meaning of Mrs? How does it differ from Ms and Miss?

What are ‘Mrs’ and ‘Ms’ short for?

The abbreviations Mr and Mrs are in common use, and are straightforward to pronounce when we see them written down:  an approximation would be ‘mister’ and ‘missus’. But what are they abbreviations of? We seldom, if ever, write them out in full – and most of us probably never stop to think what the full versions of these words are.

It may come as a surprise that ‘Mr’ and ‘Mrs’ aren’t actually short for mister and missus – they were originally abbreviations of master and mistress. ‘Mistress’ used to be the title prefixed to the name of a married woman, a usage dating back to the 15th century, as these early examples in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) show:

1463 in S. Tymms Wills & Inventories Bury St. Edmunds (1850) 36, I … be qwethe to my maistresse Clopton a spoon of berell.

1471 J. Paston in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) I. 443 Iff it come to Mestresse Elysabeȝ Hyggens … sche schall comveye it to me.

The use of ‘Mistress’ to denote a married woman is now the least common meaning of the word: it only survives as a dialect form in some parts of the world.

The meaning of Mrs

So, the abbreviation for ‘Mrs’ survived, but not the practice of pronouncing it as ‘mistress’: today, the only standard, accepted pronunciation is ‘missus’. But how and when did this happen?

According to the OED, around the 18th century, ‘missus’ first became an informal contracted pronunciation of  Mrs., and ultimately, the only allowable pronunciation. When this stage was reached, Mrs (pronounced ‘missus’) became a distinct word from ‘mistress’. The evidence of when these changes happened is lacking, but J. Walker, in his Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of 1791, notes that mistress as a title of civility is pronounced missis, and that “to pronounce the word as it is written would, in these cases, appear quaint and pedantick”…

So, we’re not sure when Mrs and Mistress became two separate words, pronounced differently – but we know that this has been the case for at least 200 years.

Mrs or missus?

Some might think that the word missus is the full version of ‘Mrs’, written down. But this is a different word altogether – you would never use ‘missus’ for ‘Mrs’ in writing. Imagine: ‘Dear Missus Cooper, we are writing to advise you that you are on the incorrect tax code’ – it looks quite wrong.

Oxford’s language research shows that ‘missus’ is mostly used informally to indicate a man’s wife, with either ‘my’ or ‘the’ in front of it. The OED records this informal usage from the 19th century, and illustrates this with quotes drawn as widely as from Dickens and the Daily Mirror:

1833 Dickens Letter. ?10 Dec. (1965) I. 34 Hint this delicately to your Missus.

1934 T. S. Eliot Rock ii. 65 Lor-love-a-duck, it’s the missus!

1975 Daily Mirror 29 Apr. 25 If you fancy taking the missus for a day out, you take her virtually free.

The Oxford English Corpus – our bank of real 21st century written English – also illustrates the informal contexts in which the word is used today, where ‘the missus’ isn’t necessarily the speaker’s wife:

I took the missus to recharge the batteries a bit this past weekend and it did us wonders.

I get off at ten, and while that may be too late for me and the missus to go out for dinner, it’s not too late for a romantic dinner at home.

The Misses Smiths at home

Having established that ‘Mistress’ used to mean a married woman, it may surprise and confuse us to learn that ‘Miss’ – an abbreviation still used to denote an unmarried woman – was also originally short for ‘Mistress’. How ‘mistress’ came to be used for two mutually exclusive groups of people is perhaps the subject of another blog post.

According to the OED, in 19th century use:

‘when Miss was prefixed to the surname alone, e.g. Miss Smith, it normally indicated the eldest (unmarried) daughter of the family; in referring to the others the forename was employed, e.g. Miss Ethel (Smith). In practice, for reasons of convenience the forenames were often inserted or omitted without regard to this rule. When the title is applied to several persons of the same name at once, usage sanctions two forms, namely the Misses Smith and the Miss Smiths, the former being regarded as the more formal.’

Just call me mizz

In the 20th century, another way to address women, married and unmarried alike, was born with the advent of Ms. Pronounced ‘miz’ to distinguish it from ‘Miss’, it is a blend of Mrs and Miss and, as such, isn’t an abbreviation of a longer word. According to the OED, Ms’ has been adopted ‘especially 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)’.

The OED’s quotations documenting the usage of Ms stretch as far back as 1901:

1901 Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican 10 Nov. 4/5 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.

1949 M. Pei Story of Lang.i. viii. 79 Feminists… have often proposed that the two present-day titles be merged into… Miss’ (to be written ‘Ms.’), with a plural ‘Misses’ (written ‘Mss.’).

1952 Simplified Let. (National Office Managem. Assoc., Philadelphia) Jan. 4 Use abbreviation Ms. for all women addressees. This modern style solves an age-old problem.

1974 Daily Tel. 21 May 1/6 The Passport Office yesterday conceded the right to women to call themselves Ms (pronounced Miz) on their passports instead of Mrs or Miss.

The quotations themselves give an interesting insight into the history of how ‘Ms’ gradually gained acceptance in the English language – from a ‘feminist proposal’ to a formal part of a woman’s identity, as sanctified by no less illustrious an entity than the Passport Office.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.