Ben Zimmer: Ms. (a history)





[Ben Zimmer is executive producer of visualthesaurus.com, an online destination for word lovers. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary.]

In the Nov. 10, 1901, edition of The Sunday Republican of Springfield, Mass., tucked away in an item at the bottom of Page 4, an unnamed writer put forth a modest proposal. “There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill,” the writer began. “Every one 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.”

How to avoid this potential social faux pas? The writer suggested “a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation,” namely, Ms. With this “simple” and “easy to write” title, a tactfully ambiguous compromise between Miss and Mrs., “the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances.” The writer even gave a pronunciation tip: “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.”...

The item in the Springfield paper made a minor splash, getting picked up and discussed over the next few weeks in other newspapers around the country, from Iowa to Minnesota to Utah. As 1901 drew to a close, however, the Ms. proposal faded from the public eye — though it seems to have made enough of an impression to lurk just below the radar for decades to come. In 1932, it reappeared: a letter writer in The New York Times wondered if “a woman whose marital status is in doubt” should be addressed as M’s or Miss. And in 1949, the philologist Mario Pei noted in his book “The Story of Language” that “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.’).”

The genesis of Ms. lay buried in newspaper archives until earlier this year, when after much painstaking hunting through digitized databases I found The Sunday Republican article that started it all. A few years ago I stumbled upon a mention of the article in another newspaper, The New Era, of Humeston, Iowa, on Dec. 4, 1901. Fred Shapiro, the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations,” then found an excerpt from The Sunday Republican article in The Salt Lake Tribune. After discovering that The Sunday Republican had recently been scanned and digitized by Readex, a publisher of digital historical materials, I was finally able to zero in on this forgotten document.



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