AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER:
our language-hunting friend Ben Zimmer has been tracking the origin of
the female title "Ms.," which, unlike Mrs. for a married woman and Miss
for someone who's single, does not indicate marital status. Most people
assume it came from the feminist movement of the nineteen seventies.
But thanks to digital newspaper archives, Ben has just located a
proposal published more than a century ago.
"So there was an article in the Springfield Republican of Springfield,
Massachusetts, on November tenth, nineteen-oh-one. But I wasn't able to
find the original article for quite a long time; I was only able to
find discussion about the article. It ended up getting reprinted in
newspapers around the country."
AA: "Why don't you read us a little bit from that article?"
ZIMMER: "It starts off by saying 'There is a void in the English
language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill. Everyone
has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of
some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult
a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to
know the facts.'"
RS: "And this was written in November of nineteen-oh-one."
AA: "Do you have any idea who wrote it?"
ZIMMER: "Unfortunately these newspaper items were unsigned so we don't
know who the actual author was. Very likely a man, but the title of the
section that it appears is Men, Women and Affairs. Springfield,
Massachusetts, was actually a place where there was a lot of what's
called first wave feminism -- so, for instance, the women's suffrage
movement, where they were lobbying for women to have the right to vote.
So it was active in terms of early feminism.
"But we could see
from this article it wasn't necessarily a feminist argument that was
being proposed. It was more just a practical solution to save yourself
the social embarrassment of calling an unmarried woman married or vice
versa. So it wasn't until later, much later, in the seventies really,
that it became identified as something that had to do with the feminist
movement and a proposal that had more to do with trying to have a
non-sexist alternative to Mister, the male title, abbreviated Mr.,
which does not make reference to a man's marital status."
RS: "And Ms. became the name of a magazine."
ZIMMER: "That's right. That did a lot to boost the profile of the title
Ms. when Ms. magazine -- which was associated with the women's
liberation movement -- was first published in nineteen seventy-one."
"You know, it's interesting, because the English language obviously
goes back centuries and we've had these distinctions of Miss/Mrs. for,
I assume, quite a long time. Why did it take this long for someone to
come up with a solution, and were there earlier attempts at finding a
single term for a woman who might be married or might not be married?"
ZIMMER: "Well, these titles have really changed over time. And, in
fact, the term Mistress, which is actually where Mrs. comes from
originally. Mrs. was originally an abbreviation of Mistress, but that
became pronounced as missus even though it retained the r in the
abbreviation. Mistress was one title that in certain places in the U.K.
or the U.S. could possibly refer to a woman regardless of marital
status. But there wasn't anything over all like that. In general this
distinction between unmarried woman and married women was maintained.
lot of that had to do with the fact that when a woman married, she was
expected to take the last name of the husband, and so you moved from
Miss Smith to Mrs. Jones. Well, this is another thing that changed
quite a lot, particularly in the nineteen sixties and seventies with
the feminist movement, where more women were retaining their maiden
name. And then it didn't really make any sense to use Miss or Mrs. if a
woman is married but has not changed her name to her husband's name."
Ben Zimmer writes about language as executive producer of the Web site
visualthesaurus.com. And a style point here -- even though Ms. is not
an abbreviation, it appears with a period in most American usage. And
that's WORDMASTER for this week. Archives are at
voanews.com/wordmaster. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.