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Extending the History of Words: The Case of “Ms.”

Lost in the hubbub about the new words and disappearing hyphens in the latest edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is a more subtle type of editorial revision. The Shorter, as a dictionary built on historical principles, provides information about the age of words and their main senses. The date range of earliest known use is noted in each entry by E (early), M (mid), or L (late) plus a century number: thus “M18” means a word was first recorded in the mid-18th century. This style of dating is admittedly approximate, but giving the exact year of a word’s first recorded use would lend a false sense of precision. We very rarely can determine the first “baptismal” usage of a word with any confidence. But even with dates given by rough century divisions, the editors of the Shorter have been able to revise the dating of nearly 4,500 words and senses based on discoveries of earlier recorded uses, known as “antedatings” in the dictionary world. Much of this new antedating information is derived from the ongoing work done for the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Since I dabble in what my colleague Erin McKean recently called “the competitive sport of antedating,” I thought I’d share a discovery of mine that made it into the new edition of the Shorter.

My finding was for Ms., which the Shorter informs us is “used as a title preceding the surname of any woman regardless of her marital status, sometimes with her forename(s) intervening.” This is obviously a rather recent invention, compared to the title Mrs. for a married woman (from the late 15th century) and Miss for an unmarried woman (from the mid-17th century). But just how recent is it? Past editions of the Shorter marked Ms. as “M20,” since the earliest example in the OED was from 1949, in Mario Pei’s The Story of Language. 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.’).”

Since Pei suggested that feminists had “often proposed” the creation of the title Ms., it clearly had some history before he mentioned it in his 1949 book. One earlier mention in a 1932 letter to the New York Times didn’t exactly fit the bill, since it gave the title as M’s rather than Ms. (The letter writer wondered, “In addressing by letter a woman whose marital status is in doubt, should one write ‘M’s’ or ‘Miss’?”) But thanks to newly available digitized newspaper databases, I was able to find Ms. as a title for a woman without regard to her marital status as early as 1901, a significant antedating.

The citation I found appears in the Dec. 4, 1901 edition of the Humeston New Era, a newspaper from Iowa, commenting on an item in a Massachusetts paper, the Springfield Republican. The relevant passage reads: “As a word to be used in place of ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.,’ when the addresser is ignorant of the state of the person addressed, the Springfield Republican suggests a word of which ‘Ms.’ is the abbreviation, with a pronunciation something like ‘Mizz.’ But the Republican does not tell what the new word is or how it is to be spelled.”

The 1901 appearance of Ms. dramatically changes our understanding of the history of the title. It seems to have emerged as a stopgap title for a woman with unknown marital status, rather than a feminist innovation meant to replace what Mario Pei called the “revelatory features” of Miss and Mrs. (Ms. still could conceivably have had origins in the “first-wave feminism” of that era, tied to the suffrage movement.) Furthermore, Pei implied that the early pronuncation of Ms. was like “Miss,” but the 1901 citation is proof that Ms. was intended to be pronounced “Mizz,” as it would be when it was popularized by feminists in the 1970s.

It’s also interesting to note that the Iowa writer was confused by the Springfield Republican‘s suggestion of Ms. as an abbreviation without an expansion. This would continue to be a point of contention regarding Ms. when it became identified with the “second-wave” feminist movement. It’s still a concern to some: earlier this year, a reader of Jan Freeman’s language column in the Boston Globe wrote in to say, “Mrs. is an abbreviation for Missus and therefore needs a period. Ms is not an abbreviation for anything and therefore does not need a period.” (The Shorter, by the way, lists both Ms and Ms. as accepted variants.)

So now the Shorter labels Ms. as “E20” rather than “M20.” But the hunt continues. Could it perhaps be “L19”? The next step would be to find the original Springfield Republican article to which the Iowa paper referred. Unfortunately, the Republican‘s archives haven’t been digitized yet, and I’ve so far been unsuccessful in finding the elusive article in a microfilm search. If anyone would like to take up the hunt and find Ms. in the Republican or an even earlier source, please feel free! Antedating is a sport that anyone can play.

Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.

Recent Comments

  1. […] Read the rest of this great post here […]

  2. KHF

    Why the SOED can’t follow its parent work by giving a date for different senses of words as it’s an abridgement of the OED? If it may mislead users, why the OED does so? The OED editors can decide the earliest date of use by giving qutations, so can those of the SOED. I used to look up SOED for dates of entries of different senses of words, but found a bit disappointing when I bought the new editions of SOED in 1993 and 2002 since I expected it was like previous ones. It’s not easy to get access to the OED both online and paper editions, the SOED is a real alternative while Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate and Random House Webster’s Unabridged can’t provide a date or date range for different senses. Antedating is encouraged, but it shouldn’t be an excuse for avioding false precision. If antedating is needed for some words or senses, just do it, no matter M20 or E20.

  3. Misha Hoekstra

    I’ve always thought that the beauty of Ms. is that it /simultaneously/ abbreviates both Miss and Mrs. By conflating the two, it also signals a sort of etymological retreat, since Miss and Mrs. are themselves originally abbreviations of a single word: mistress.

  4. […] Read the rest of this great post here […]

  5. Stephen

    I don’t have Newspaperarchive, so can’t check there. Does the article specify that the Springfield Republican was the Massachusetts paper, or might it be the Springfield Republican from another state?

  6. Ben Zimmer

    Stephen: The item doesn’t specify, but I don’t think there were any other newspapers at the time called the Springfield Republican besides the one in Massachusetts (though there are of course many Springfields).

    The Massachusetts paper had a lot of coverage of the suffrage movement, which is why I speculated that “Ms.” could have originated in first-wave feminism.

  7. Stephen

    Thanks, Ben. I may be mistaken, but I think that there may be one other candidate newspaper. Unless I read WorldCat wrongly, there is also the The Springfield Republican from Springfield, Missouri, 1895 to 1908, OCLC number 21586198

  8. Ben Zimmer

    Stephen, well spotted! Humeston, IA is certainly a lot closer to Springfield, MO than it is to Springfield, MA. And wouldn’t it be appropriate if “Mizz” came from Mizzouri!

  9. […] how fresh a coinage was movie at the time of this complaint? The antedaters have been pushing back the earliest known usage of the word slowly but surely. In the second […]

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