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 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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