O Mistress Mine

It’s a sign of how much sleep I’ve had lately that I can’t remember whether the discussion on the use of “Mrs” “Ms” and “Miss” was held on Plans or somewhere else (I’m *pretty* sure it was Plans) but as it’s one of those perennial issues I wanted to discuss it here, as well as offering my personal, farfetched solution.

I haven’t been able to find any solid data about the title preferred by married women in their 20s and 30s, but anecdotally I’ve observed that many women, myself included, are willing to take our husbands’ surnames but are very unwilling to be addressed as what the Indiebride boards would call “Mrs. Hislast” (maybe that should be “Mrs. Ourlast” – but you know what I mean). Ms. Hislast is fine, an unadorned name is fine, but the sight of the birthday card from grandparents or ad flier addressed to “Mrs. Adam Smith” is cause for severe wincing. Part of this is probably the feeling of your identity being subsumed; for the most part, our generation of women weren’t brought up with the idea that marrying a man meant that we would be dominated by him in every way, including by his full name. But it also seems – and again, this is all anecdotal – that women of our age don’t particularly thrill to being addressed as “Mrs. Jane Smith” either (and which isn’t technically correct, anyway), even though it’s their own full name there, and not their husband’s. It seems that a lot of the problem is with the “Mrs” alone.

In my case, my distaste for “Mrs” is based mostly on vanity and a bit on the old joke about “Whenever you say Mrs. Smith, I think my mother-in-law must be standing behind me.” Simply put, “Mrs” sounds as dowdy as hell, not to mention about thirty years older than I am. It’s strange, because I know a lot of women – all much older than me – who refer to themselves as Mrs. and don’t fit the dowdy stereotype in the least. Considering where I live, I’m sure there are many young women out there who are proudly “Mrs” – I just haven’t taken the initiative in discussing it with them. But I can’t imagine having this sort of distaste for the title if I had lived fifty years ago. The culture shift since then has been so violent that I can’t imagine living in a world without “Ms.” though it does grate on the ear somewhat, in my opinion (and when it’s pronounced as “Miss”, as it often is, it sometimes seems like distinguishing between the two is pointless – why not just roll them together and make “Miss” the default for “Not announcing marital status”?)

Of course, a big issue is the fact that “Mrs” is an unequivocal announcement of your marital status. “Miss” can be ambiguous (women authors, even a century ago, would professionally be “Miss Mansfield” even if said Miss Mansfield happened also to be the wife of Mr. Murry). And these days it’s not so much in fashion to make a big deal of your marital status – getting married is no longer the main (even life-essential) goal for most women that it was long ago. We can well imagine that Charlotte Lucas, in Pride and Prejudice, signed herself as “Mrs. Collins” with relief (and perhaps a resigned sigh) because in securing that title, she was demonstrating that she had secured her own future. Very few young western women are in that boat today, and so demonstrating one’s marital status feels unnecessary, especially since men have no married/unmarried title equivalents and never have (though I recall reading one disgruntled letter to a magazine, long ago, written by a man who suggested that men should be “Mr.” for Mister if they’re unmarried, and “Stp.” for Stupid if they are. It was signed Stp. someone-or-other). The distinction seems like an old, double-standard tradition that we could stand to lose.

But actually, it was not always thus. Mrs and Miss (and, secondarily, Ms) all stem from the once-perfectly-respectable title of “Mistress.” The two didn’t begin to split apart until three centuries ago; before then, “Mistress” was for non-noble women of any marital status: as Miss Manners puts it in her Guide To Excruciatingly Correct Behavior “Mistress Nell Quickly married, and became Mistress Nell Pistol”. I’m no linguistic historian, and have no idea why the split occurred (if anyone does, please – let us know!) but I do think it was very unfortunate. One lovely, catchall title was split into several less-than-satisfactory ones, while the full title itself became relegated to the underworld of unrespectability. The only benefit was that it picked up an air of glamour that it probably didn’t have before; the titles of Mistress Anne Boleyn and Mistress Nell Gwynn would have sounded perfectly ordinary to their hearers at the time, but nowadays, if biography and novel titles are anything to go by, they sound positively lush. Of course, they’d probably be taken aback by the SCA and S&M associations as well.

So, is there any hope for the revival of Mistress? More euphonious than Ms, more substantial than Miss, more glamourous than Mrs? I doubt it, though I’d be highly amused (and very happy, of course) to see it happen. Of course, it wouldn’t be the first derogatory word to be reclaimed by a group, so it could always happen. What do you think?


16 Responses to O Mistress Mine

  1. Mary says:

    I’m all for it. I have used Miss, Ms., and Mrs. at various times in my life. I’ve noticed that Ms. seems to be an option that many of the divorced women I know seem to like, particularly if they’ve kept their husband’s last name to match their children’s. Mistress does sound much prettier than the other words.

    On that same note, I received an e-mail a month or so ago from my first Indian student in which she addressed me as “Respected Madam.” It made me feel both honored and amused, as in “”Wow, it’s nice to receive that level of respect,” and “Hmm. Mid-life career change option Number 3.”

  2. akdmyers says:

    According to the OED, the term “mistress” derives from an Old French word which was a feminine version of master (maistre, maistress). The earliest (and now, unfortunately, obsolete) definition of mistress is “a woman having control or authority” such as a governess, head of household, or someone who had servants. It first appeared in writing in 1330.

    Miss began as an abbreviation for mistress (mis. appeared in writing in 1606), and it first appears as a title (Miss Smith) in 1667. In the 18th and 19th century in the US, Miss was also occasionally used for married women.

    As for Mrs. (or missus) the OED has this to say:
    “In the latter half of the 17th cent. there was a general tendency to confine the use of written abbreviations to words of inferior syntactical importance, such as prefixed titles. The form Mrs. for mistress therefore fell into disuse except when prefixed to a name; and in this position the writing of the full form gradually became unusual. The contracted pronunciation became, for the prefixed title, first a permitted colloquial licence, and ultimately the only allowable pronunciation. When this stage was reached, Mrs. (with the contracted pronunciation) became a distinct word from mistress. As to the chronology of these changes evidence is lacking; but it may be noted that J. Walker in his Crit. Pronouncing Dict. of 1828 says that mistress as a title of civility is pronounced missis, and that ‘to pronounce the word as it is written would, in these cases, appear quaint and pedantick’; this generally accords with the earliest printed attestations of the form missus…”
    It first appears in writing in 1485, and was initially used to distinguish married gentlewomen, but eventually came to be used for any married woman, regardless of rank. It was also sometimes used in the 18th century as a title of courtesy for elderly unmarried women.

    I’m not sure this answers the question of when or why Miss and Mrs. split, and it sounds like that’s a question that can’t be satisfactorily answered at this point. I doubt we could “take back” the term mistress at this point (even I want to snigger a bit when I hear it), but I do like the idea of a term meaning “a woman having control or authority.” That’s something we can all aspire to, married or not.

  3. Ellie says:

    Personally, I don’t like being called Mrs. Ourlast. I could correct the caller with “Ms. Ourlast”, but that seems to deny my relationship with my husband, and people who would call me Mrs. Ourlast already know I’m married.

    I find it much more satisfying to correct the caller with “Dr. Ourlast”, but “Mistress Ourlast” has good weight to it too.

    What about “Goody Ourlast” and “Goodman Ourlast”? Those were my favorites growing up, but I never tried to use them in public.

  4. Mary says:

    But what if your last name is Goodman?

  5. sonetka says:

    Then you can just go by the single name “Goodman” like a pop star :). Actually, if I remember correctly, one of the first accused Salem “witches” to be executed was Goodwife Sarah Good, called Goody Good, so maybe you just had to ride out that kind of name.

    Goody and Goodman would be a lot of fun to have back (Ellie, did you go through a Salem-obsession phase as a child too?) – the only hitch is that Goody is just short for Goodwife, which leaves us right back where we started with the whole marital-division thing. I’ve been Googling around but can’t for the life of me find for certain what unmarried Puritan women were called – was it just Miss? Akdmyers, do you have any reference on this?

    Another random P&P reference on the issue is that much-quoted instance where Mr. Bennet tells Lizzy that “I hope you are not going to be missish” which meant overly prim. So maybe Miss once had a little baggage of its own, as well.

  6. Linda says:

    I’ve been married for 36 years and have never liked or adjusted to the title of Mrs. even though I share my husband’s surname. I know a number of my peers in the women’s lib generation who share my feelings. In the 70s I think we were very conscious of what statement we were making by the title that we indicated as preferred. But actually my true preference has always been for no title at all. I think the Quakers have had the right idea!

  7. kidsilkhaze says:

    I’m a Mrs., but I’m still not used to it, because the only people who use an honorific when speaking to me call me Miss Jennie. Mrs. Jennie just sounds weird. Yes, people are making assumptions about my marital status, but… there’s obviously a ring on my finger. I’m not hiding anything.

    I’m not a big fan of Ms. but that’s just because, aesthetically, I don’t like the sound of it. And, I’m not a Miss anymore.

    But what about other languages, where the Miss/Mrs split is marital status and/or age. My French teacher always told us that, at a certain point in a woman’s life, she is Madame, end of story.

    Still, I always laugh when people ask me what my husband’s last name is…

  8. sonetka says:

    I’ve been told that it’s the same in German, though I don’t have firsthand experience of it; once you hit thirty-five or so, you’re “Frau” whether you’ve had six husbands or have sworn a vow of perpetual singlehood. Personally, I like the Russian method where it’s just first name + patronymic and no Mr/Mrs/Miss titles to speak of. (They do have rough equivalents, but they’re not used now).

    I think the only time I’ve heard the words “Mrs. K” (except for at the wedding, for teasing) were when I was in L&D, and that didn’t last very long. Otherwise I mostly see it on letters from grandparents, where I am “Mrs. A. K.” and on my credit card, where I am “Mrs. Sonetka K,” which I really don’t like since I was taught from an early age that “Mrs Herfirst” was Bad Form.

  9. akdmyers says:

    I have not been able to find any Puritan-specific references either.
    Also, regarding German titles, I am not certain about this but I believe Fraulein (Miss) has fallen extremely out of favor because of derogatory connotations (kind of like mistress in English I think) and my sense is that Frau is now used indiscriminately, regardless of age or marital status. I could be wrong though; it’s been a long time since that was covered in any of my German classes.

  10. Ellie says:

    Sonetka, me and the Salem Witch trials were nothing compared to landing TWO LEADING ROLES in a class production of the Crucible. I’m not sure how that happened either.

    As part of an effort to bring back Goody/Goodman, I named one of the major NPCs in my latest DnD game (yes, I know, I’m a dork) Goodman Sonders. The Goodman’s of common birth, but high placed politically. Adkmyers, is that an appropriate usage?

  11. akdmyers says:

    Yes, I think that is an appropriate usage, though it depends on the time period. But at some point (I’m a little hazy on when, as is the OED) the terms Goodman and Goodwife became more general terms of respect, regardless of rank or birth.

  12. sonetka says:

    Akdmyers – very odd about the German titles; I took it for eight years and nobody mentioned that once. Maybe my teachers were getting a secret kick out of hearing us say naughty words? Poetloverrebelspy would be the person to ask about current usage, I think, so if you’re reading this …. 🙂

    Ellie – Wow – by class production do you mean a class reading or a staged thing? Because I’m trying to think of two main characters of “The Crucible” who are never onstage at the same time. We had a class reading in HS; I didn’t get one of the really big parts but I did get to play Mary Warren, so I got one good, dramatic scene out of it at least. (“She sees nothin’!”)

  13. poetloverrebelspy says:

    I believe Ann is totally right — I mean, the last Fräulein I can remember is Fräulein Maria. And how do you solve a problem like Maria?

    I posted the question here. We’ll see what the peanut gallery has to say.

  14. Ellie says:

    Sonetka, I was Abigail and, um, the maid? I forget. It was a staged reading during class, and when they had scenes together I jumped around or someone else would play the other.

  15. Lindsey says:

    I don’t think I understand why “Mrs. Herfirst …” is bad form. Is it that “Mrs.” means “wife of”?

    Help! No one taught me these things growing up!

  16. sonetka says:

    “Mrs Herfirst” is in sort of a grey area; a hundred years ago it was highly, highly improper unless you were signing a hotel registry alone and wanted to put a signifier that you were married, as in: Mary Smith (Mrs). But yeah, basically the issue is that it had come to signify “wife of” someone, not just “a wife” in general (or at least, someone who had been a wife at one time – widows often stick with “Mrs” after all). Thus, Mrs. Mary Smith sounds like she’s saying that she’s married to herself.

    Some etiquette writers now say that Mrs. Herfirst is good form for a woman who’s divorced but keeping her ex’s name, or for widows. Considering how much title mixing-and-matching goes on, there’s nothing really against it. The thing is, I was brought up on Miss Manners, who sticks to the old form wherein a divorcee would be Mrs. HerMaiden Hislast (if she were retaining her ex’s name), or simply Ms. Herfirst Hislast. So “Mrs Herfirst” just sounds horrendously clunky to me, especially since it’s not used on a consistent basis for anything; it might be recommended for divorcees, but it seems like anyone who’s been married (or is married) at any time is liable to be called it. It’s on my credit card, in fact, and I always feel like it’s just drawing attention to itself pointlessly. “Look! I”m married!” Hence, my love of Mistress :).

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