Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

More Ms.-teries of "Ms."

In this Sunday's "On Language" column in the New York Times Magazine, I delve into the history of the title Ms. used as a marriage-neutral title for women. As I revealed here on Word Routes back in June, the earliest known proposal for the modern use of Ms. appeared in the Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican on November 10, 1901. And as the proposal reemerged over the ensuing decades, two nagging questions kept getting asked: how do you pronounce it, and what does it stand for?

The original article in the Sunday Republican, which I reproduced in my June Word Routes column, was fairly explicit: Ms. was intended as a combination of Miss and Mrs. (which both began as abbreviations of Mistress): graphically, it retains "what the two doubtful terms have in common," thus avoiding the choice of picking Miss or Mrs. when the woman's marital status was unknown. As for the pronunciation, "mizz" was recommended as "a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis' does duty for Miss and Mrs alike."

Yet there was confusion about the proposal almost immediately. When a writer for the Humeston (Iowa) New Era commented on it a few weeks later, he understood the "mizz" pronunciation but still wondered what Ms. was supposed to abbreviate, not appreciating the strategic ambiguity of the new title. Later on, the suggested pronunciation got lost in the shuffle. By the time Mario Pei wrote about Ms. in his 1949 book The Story of Language, he supposed it was pronounced "miss."

The idea of pronouncing Ms. as "miss" continued in the 1950s, when business writing guides first began putting the title into practice. Take this early example from the Proceedings of the American Gas Association (1952):

As a result, in the interests of simplified procedure and progress, a new name has been devised for them instead of Miss for single women, and Missus for married women, we will now use only one form for both: Ms. How is it pronounced? Like miss, because missus has two syllables, and as long as we're eliminating effort, we should also eliminate that extra syllable. Thus, we have all men, married or single, Mr., and all women, married or single, Ms.

Now flash-forward to 1970, when Ms. finally started to gain traction as an emblem of the nonsexist language reform put forward by the women's liberation movement (thanks in large part to the efforts of the activist Sheila Michaels). Gloria Steinem came out in support of the title in the pages of New York Magazine on August 24, 1970, but admitted she was "stumped": " "How the hell do you pronounce Ms.?" Two days later, when feminists around the country protested in the Women's Strike for Equality, the "mizz" pronunciation received a boost in the media coverage. The Associated Press got the scoop from Jean Crosby, coordinator of the San Francisco rally:

In women's liberation language, if you're a female you're a Ms. — not a Miss or a Mrs. That's pronounced Miz and as Jean Crosby explains: "It's like what children call their teachers, they don't know the difference."

Still, the two pronunciations, "mizz" and "miss," had to battle it out for a few more years. On October 22, 1971, the New York Times reported:

Now in use on a limited scale, Ms is pronounced Miz by some and Miss by others but whatever the pronunciation, it is considered by many an apt contraction of "Mistress," the word from which both Mrs. and Miss derive.

In introducing the preview issue of Ms. Magazine, an insert in the December 20-27, 1971 issue of New York Magazine, New York editor Clay Felker wrote that Ms. is "pronounced 'miz' or 'miss,' depending on the pronouncer." The first dictionary to include Ms. as an entry, the 1972 American Heritage School Dictionary, actually gave three possible pronunciations in a usage note: "Ms. has yet to find an agreed pronunciation: (mis), (miz), and simply (em es) seem to be the possibilities." (You can read an interview with the drafter of the entry, lexicographer Alma Graham, here.)

Steinem and her colleagues at Ms. Magazine did eventually fix on the "mizz" pronunciation as the primary one, as did everyone else. Well, not everyone. In 1975, The New Emily Post's Etiquette was published by Emily Post's granddaughter-in-law Elizabeth Post, and the book raised the old questions about what Ms. stands for and how it should be pronounced:

"Ms." has no meaning (other than "manuscript") and "Miz" or "Em Ess," the only possible pronunciations, are either unattractive or unwieldy. Therefore I think it should be avoided socially.

It's a bit ironic that a book of etiquette should come down so hard on Ms. — which was, after all, originally suggested in 1901 as a tactful solution to a problem of etiquette. Common usage ultimately won out, giving the nod to Ms. pronounced "mizz." Still, after all these years, some people continue to wonder what it's an abbreviation of!

[Update, Oct. 23, 2:30 p.m.: The New York Times Magazine column just went online — read it here.]


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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:

Friday October 23rd 2009, 9:32 AM
Comment by: Kate (Chicago, IL)
And the fear that the word "Ms." still continues. I go by Ms. and have retained my maiden name rather than adopting my husband's last name. Yes, I was an early subscriber to Ms. Magazine.

Recently I used to my own advantage the public's continuing mixed feelings about a woman who does not change her name after marriage.

Upon reporting to jury duty selection and finding out that the trial may last several weeks I was in a panic that I might be selected. The judge inadvertently gave me a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate to the prosecution that they should not assume my corporate HR background meant I would be “tough” on a rule-breaker. The judge addressed me as "Mrs."

I confidently replied, "Ms., it's Ms., not Mrs. ****. That is my mother's name. **** is not my husband's last name; it's my maiden name." The judge seemed flustered where up until then he was in full control. I kept up my direct and confident tone and went on to state that "I am confident I would be fair and unbiased as long as the prosecution had enough evidence to prove guilt. People are innocent until proven guilty." The defense was smiling ear-to-ear. The prosecution released me from jury duty.

I will be a dutiful citizen next time I am called and try to serve on a jury. It would have been a professionally disaster to be on that particularly long trial at that time and I’m not proud that I weaseled out of it.

Still, why are so many people uncomfortable when a woman elects not to change her name upon marriage? I am even more madly in love with my husband than the day I married him almost 20 years ago and he concurs that he shares the same feelings. To think, neither of us changed our name and yet we still become a committed couple. And while I am typically confident, I am often willing to acquiesce to another’s argument and be open to thinking, well, like a balanced, mature adult. That’s real confidence.
Friday October 23rd 2009, 10:46 AM
Comment by: Paula P.
In the late 1950s as was a young legal secretary. I had learned that when writing a formal business letter to a woman, and her marriage status was unknown, it was proper to use "Ms." It seemed just wrong to my young ears, but there was no good alternative. I could omit the salutation altogether (not "proper"), I could say Dear Mary or even Dear Mary Smith (too informal). So "Ms" it was (with and without the period). My, how things have changed!

It was around the same time that the hyphen was being dropped from "co-operate." Horrors! How would one pronounce "cooperate"? Coop-er-ate??
Also, the "e" following "g" was being dropped from "judgement" and "acknowledgement." It seemed that without those "e's" the "g" would become a hard "g" and one might hear "jug-ment" or "ak-nol-egg-ment." But we English speakers an an adaptable lot, aren't we?!
Friday October 23rd 2009, 10:56 AM
Comment by: Paula P.
Come to think of it, who, or how was it, decided to use Miss and Mrs. as abbreviations for Mistress? -- one with a period, one without? I can understand the "Mr." abbreviation -- first and last letters of the word. It would seem, then, that "Ms." should have been used all along -- first and last letters of Mistress.
Friday October 23rd 2009, 3:24 PM
Comment by: Rain
I never use a period after Ms because in my opinion it isn't an abbreviation of anything, and can stand alone. I prefer to be called Ms (pronounced Miz and I use my maiden name.
Thursday November 10th 2011, 10:11 AM
Comment by: Tamara H. (Indianapolis, IN)
Great comments and fun article. But what about Madam, Madame, Mme.? I suppose no one uses that unless they are French or particularly snooty? :-)

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