Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Hunting the Elusive First "Ms."

In the dictionary game, when you've found a historical example of word that is earlier than anything previously found, it's called an "antedating." Looking for antedatings in American English has been utterly transformed by the advent of digitized newspaper databases. Now, hot on the heels of my antedating of jazz in New Orleans, I have another early 20th-century discovery to report: from 1901, the first known proposal for using the title Ms. to refer to a woman regardless of her marital status.

On page 4 of the Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican of November 10, 1901, under the heading "Men, Women and Affairs," is the following item, in which the writer suggests that "a void in the English language" may be filled by Ms., pronounced as "Mizz," as an alternative to Miss or Mrs.:

I've been on the trail of this historical nugget for a few years now. Until recently, the earliest known appearance of Ms. was nearly half a century later, from 1949. In The Story of Language, Mario Pei wrote: "Feminists, who object to the distinction between Mrs. and Miss and its concomitant revelatory features, have often proposed that the two present-day titles be merged into a single one, 'Miss' (to be written 'Ms.')." Pei states that Ms. had been "often proposed," but where were the proposals? The closest precursor that had been found was a 1932 letter to the New York Times where the title M's is suggested, not quite the same as Ms.

Some have theorized that Ms. has roots long before the 20th century. One piece of evidence that has been put forth is the tombstone of Sarah Spooner, who died in 1767 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. As you can see from this image, what appears on the headstone is M with a superscript s. As Dennis Baron writes in his excellent book Grammar and Gender (1987), "it is certainly an abbreviation of Miss or Mistress, and not an example of colonial language reform or a slip of the chisel, as some have suggested."

There things stood until 2004, when I happened upon this tantalizing little notice in the Humeston (Iowa) New Era of Dec. 4, 1901 (thanks to the Newspaperarchive database):

The writer seems confused about the Springfield Republican proposal since he (or she, but probably he) guesses that Ms. is an abbreviation of some longer word. That's a confusion that persists among those who assume Ms. is an abbreviated form of Miss or Missus, but the Republican article puts forth Ms. without any particular expansion.

I hadn't been able to locate the original piece in the Springfield Republican, and wasn't even sure if the Springfield in question was in Massachusetts or Missouri. (Fellow word sleuth Stephen Goranson had suggested Missouri's Springfield, since the town did have a newspaper back then called the Republican, and it would certainly be closer to Humeston, Iowa. Plus, wouldn't it be great if Ms. originated in Mizz-ouri?) Finally, progress was made by Fred Shapiro, author of the indispensible Yale Book of Quotations, who managed to find a republished version of the Republican item in the Salt Lake Tribune of November 17, 1901.

Shapiro's discovery prompted me to hit the databases again. I found that the Republican of Springfield, Massachusetts (not Missouri) had been digitized by America's Historical Newspapers (Readex/NewsBank), the same database that yielded the 1916 citation for jazz from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. And now that I had the full text of the item as republished in the Salt Lake City paper, I could search on phrases until the original article turned up. Because the quality of document scanning and character recognition for old newspapers can be so variable, finding the right search terms to match the scanned text can be a real challenge. It often feels like finding the right incantation to release the proverbial genie in a bottle.

When you do find the right incantation, it's a great feeling. It's one of the joys of the competitive (and collaborative) sport of antedating, which I recommend to all word lovers.

[Update, Welcome to readers of Andrew Sullivan (The Atlantic), Jan Freeman (Boston Globe), Eric Zorn (Chicago Tribune), and Dennis Baron (University of Illinois).]


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday June 23rd 2009, 6:44 AM
Comment by: Stephen H.
Is "Ms" a word or an abbreviation? If the latter, why the period? Seems like I read something during the infancy of the 1960 women's lib movement stating it should be considered a word - no period. But then I notice "Ms. Magazine" employs a period.

Steve
Fayetteville, NC
Tuesday June 23rd 2009, 7:23 AM
Comment by: Ray L.
Ms is an abbreviation of the state of Mississippi (I think all state abbreviations don"t employ a period. Ray L.
Tuesday June 23rd 2009, 7:33 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Well done, Ben! It WAS a needle in a haystack, and you found it! I hope NPR will be ringing before the day is out.
Tuesday June 23rd 2009, 9:06 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Stephen H.: The period in "Ms." has been a point of contention (so to speak) for a long time now. As you can see from the Humeston, Iowa newspaper item above, even in the earliest days people were confused about whether "Ms." was supposed to be an abbreviation for something longer, because of the period. But the Springfield article, though calling it an "abbreviation," treats it as its own word, and that's how latter-day feminists have treated it as well. Still, questions persist about the pesky period: see, for instance, Jan Freeman's Boston Globe column from Feb. '07, where she responds to a similar complaint. (She followed that up with a blog post about my search for the Springfield article.)
Tuesday June 23rd 2009, 10:01 AM
Comment by: Stephen H.
Ray L: Aren't state abbreviations all upper case?
Tuesday June 23rd 2009, 1:26 PM
Comment by: Dennis B. (Urbana, IL)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Whatever your view on "Ms." today, the 1901 article labels it an abbreviation and includes the period: "The abbreviate "Ms." is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances."

Ms. seems intended, in 1901, to be ambiguous rather than strictly marriage-neutral: the author of the article (who may or may not be the coiner -- it doesn't say, "I've just thought up a solution to a problem," as many coiners do) "what could be simpler or more logical than the retention of what the two doubtful words [ie, Miss and Mrs.] have in common."

And speaking of Ms. today, despite its frequent recommendation as a marriage-neutral option many people use it as a trendy alternative to Miss, rather than a replacement for the "Miss/Mrs." pair of honorifics. For example, when our kids were in elementary school (10-15 years ago) the unmarried teachers were listed in the staff directories as Ms., while the married ones were Mrs.
Tuesday June 23rd 2009, 5:54 PM
Comment by: Amy R. (Chicago, IL)
I'm a married Ms. who's glad to know the earliest origins of the title. Congrats on the antedate, Ben!

I just looked it up in the Mac widget dictionary (based on the New Oxford American Dictionary). The given etymology dates to the 1950s. (Hah!) Random digression: When I looked up Mrs without the period, the dictionary widget gave me Campbell, California.
Tuesday June 23rd 2009, 6:02 PM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Amy R.: To be fair, when dictionaries like the New Oxford American or Merriam-Webster's Collegiate give dates for something like "Ms.," they're looking for when the term first came into active use. Something like the Springfield Republican article might not necessarily qualify, since it could be considered merely a proposed usage rather than one that people were actually putting into practice.
Tuesday June 23rd 2009, 6:41 PM
Comment by: Karen D. (Laurel, MD)
When I was a kid back in Tennessee, both Miss and Mrs. were pronounced as "Mizz". You never knew which (and in the 60s it was one or the other) until you saw it written. And since lots of people were called Miz Lynne or Miz Susan or Miz Elizabeth - married or not - ambiguity seems to have been the result if not the aim.
Wednesday June 24th 2009, 11:14 AM
Comment by: Becky C.
So, if the big question of the day is: "What does Ms. stand for?" I would ask "What does Mrs. stand for?" Is "missus" really a word? If it indeed is a word, why the "r" in Mrs.? I give up. Maybe Ms. stands for either Miss or Missus! The idea of telegraphing ones marital status only if one is a woman seems stupid and a bit like wearing some kind of shackle. (sorry about that!) Now I am re-evaluating the need for any kind of prefix to denote sex.
Thursday July 9th 2009, 8:50 AM
Comment by: Thorunn S. (Reykjavik Iceland)
Mrs. stands for Mistress. The abbreviation is as it is because Mr. stands for Mister, a variation of Master. So you have the same beginning, plus the s from the end of Mistress. Quite simple, no need to give up!
Thursday July 9th 2009, 10:16 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Thorunn's explanation is spot on. The confusion arises because Mistress, used as a title, eventually came to be pronounced as Missus, but the abbreviation Mrs. retained the r. I talked a bit about this in a recent interview on Voice of America.
Friday August 14th 2009, 12:08 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
Great article and congrats on finding this!

You all might be interested in the Wikipedia details for forms of address under "Master"-- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_(form_of_address) and "Ms." --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ms.

My English grandmother would address mail to my young brother as "Master David ..." per the general usage of that day for Anglophone Canada. She probably would be horrified (she passed away) that not only did I move to Ms. as soon as I could do so, but retained that into marriage.

When Ms. first came into wider use, people mocked it relentlessly. Why was it needed, they asked. Married women were hugely proud to take on Mrs., even using their husbands first and last names after that. (In my mind, having Mrs. John Smith on your checks only means he doesn't have to get new ones after you get a divice. I can't imagine the oblitation of identity involved.)

What has become clearer over time as we accept these things is that labels do work to indicate status, whether conscious or not. How you were treated did differ because rights and ranking differed based on age, sex and marital status.

I suspect the need to clearly distinguish the married women from the single ones but only grown men from boys, regardless of their marital status, reflects on a society's disdain and distancing from the spinster.

I say thank goodness all around that marital status is not such a big deal anymore. I don't really care to know, except amongst my friends.
Sunday August 16th 2009, 10:30 PM
Comment by: Ellen M.
As a married woman who kept her "maiden" name, Ms was the obvious option. I can't be Mrs Maiden (that's my mother), nor am I anymore a Miss. Oddly, the practice of keeping one's given name was an artifact of the 60's surge of women's liberation and seems to have largely fallen out of favor. Which means I know women who are Ms Married, which seems inconsistent with the whole spirit of the thing.
Monday September 28th 2009, 3:28 PM
Comment by: Ray L.
From my College Dictionary, Random House Webster's:
"Ms."=a title of respect prefixed to a woman's name: Unlike Miss or Mrs. It does not depend upon or indicate her marriage status. USAGE: Ms. came into usage in the 1950s.In the early 1970s the women's movement adapted and encouraged the use of Ms. on the grounds that since the marital status of a man is not revealed by Mr;a woman's status should not be revealed by her title. The pronunciation of Ms. (Miz) is idenical with one standard South Midland and Southern U.S. pronunciation of Mrs.

Miss(unmarried woman), short for mistress. USAGE See Ms.,Miss,Mississippi.
Mrs.(married woman). Mrs. Jones [abbr. of Mistress] USAGE: See Ms.
MS,=manuscript, Mississippi, motorship, muliple sclerosis.

Confusing??
Tuesday September 29th 2009, 4:01 PM
Comment by: Jeannie K. (Scottsdale, AZ)
I like it-why should Ms. be connected to a woman's marital status? We don't know if Mr. is married or not? It is confusing??

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