October 21, 1999
Charity Terry-Lorenzo wrote:
In college one of my women's studies professors explained that the title "Mrs." or "Missus" came from the possessive "Master's". No one else I've spoken to out of college knows about this origin and I was hoping you could tell me if this is correct or not. If it's not correct, where does "Missus" as a title for a married woman originate? My dictionary tells me that it comes from "Mistress" but that does not currently refer to a married woman (rather to the "other" woman and several other meanings that are not quite "a married woman"). Please help clear this up for me.
You're on the right track, but your professor got the genders confused!
The titles Miss and Mrs. are both abbreviations of the word mistress. The missis (or the missus) is a dialectal or informal term for one's wife, or the mistress (female head) of a household. The pronunciation (MISS-iz, MISS-is) reflects an altered pronunciation of mistress.
The word mistress had many meanings in Middle English, some of which are still familiar today: female head of a household, goddess, sweetheart, expert in some occupation, teacher, and governess. Basically, mistress referred to a woman who had expertise, power, and control. But it was also used as a title of courtesy when addressing an unmarried or married woman. The sense to which you refer, the 'other woman; the woman who occupies the place of wife' came into English about 1600.
The abbreviation or shortened form miss was first used in 1645 (in John Evelyn's Diary) to mean 'a concubine; a kept mistress'. About twenty years later, Samuel Pepys first used the term as a capitalized title before the name of a girl or unmarried woman. Around the same time, John Dryden first used Miss as a term of address. There are also examples in which it referred to a female baby.
The abbreviation Mrs. was first used in 1615 before the name of a married woman, as it is today. However, to confuse matters, it was also the abbreviation of mistress in all the many senses of that word, and it also distinguished an unmarried woman from a child: "Mrs. Veal was a maiden gentlewoman." (Daniel Defoe, The History of Colonel Jack)
The male equivalent of mistress was master, which meant, among other things, 'male head of a household'. In the 16th century, master changed to mister and the abbreviation Mr. arose to identify a man but not his marital status.
So it appears that the uses of Mr. and Mrs. were somewhat parallel until the 19th century. At that time, Mrs. began to refer only to a married woman.
Many people have asked us about the abbreviation Ms. Surprisingly, it was first used as early as 1949, in Mario Pei's The Story of Language. It may be a blend of Miss and Mrs.
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