The unexpected history of ‘Mrs’

Jane Austen - mrs, ms, title, genderThe use of ‘Ms’, once controversial, is now mainstream. But it’s not so long ago it was viewed as political correctness gone mad. Personally, it’s bizarre to imagine that complete strangers ever felt entitled to know whether or not I am married. Picture a news article beginning ‘The unmarried CEO of BHP Billiton today announced…’ but this is what we did when we insisted on the use of Miss and Mrs.

And the idea of having to guess at a person’s marital status when addressing a business letter makes me cringe in sympathy for my pre-1970s forebears. I look forward to the widespread acceptance of Mx so that I can stop awkwardly attempting to guess strangers’ genders as well. Thankfully it’s largely acceptable to use first names now.

The startling thing about Mrs is that it only came to mean a married woman in the last couple of centuries. It’s an abbreviation of ‘Mistress’, and was used to refer to the female head of a household or business. These women were very likely to be married, just by dint of their age, but it was by no means certain, and the honorific referred to their position, not their marital status. It could also refer to a person with high proficiency or knowledge in an area – a scholar, for example. In other words, it was a mark of social status – of which marriage was only one variety.

‘Miss’, also a shortening of ‘Mistress’, became popular in the mid-18th century as a way for unmarried upper class women to distinguish themselves from women of business – women with, god forbid, a trade.

Researcher Dr Amy Erickson, in an article in History Workshop Journal, says: ‘Until the 19th century, most women did not have any prefix before their name. Mrs and, later, Miss were both restricted to those of higher social standing. Women on the bottom rungs of the social scale were addressed simply by their names. Thus, in a large household the housekeeper might be Mrs Green, while the scullery maid was simply Molly and the woman who came in to do the laundry was Tom Black’s wife or Betty Black.’

At least Mr. is simple. Well – not if you’re in the medical profession. While ‘Dr’ in English-speaking countries can refer to either a medical doctor or someone with a PhD (a Doctorate in Philosophy), in many other countries the word for a medical doctor is more like ‘physician’ or even ‘medic’ – with none of the prestige we give it here. In fact, in the 19th century, the prefix ‘Dr’ was a dirty word, associated with quacks and snake oil salesmen, so most holders of doctoral degrees preferred to omit it from their titles.

Others in the medical profession – dentists, gynaecologists – have fought for the right to be called Dr and for the most part been granted it. Meanwhile surgeons in the UK, having risen originally from the lowly ranks of barber-surgeons rather than those with a formal degree in medicine, retain the ‘Mr’ as a point of pride.  

Can’t we just keep it simple and call everyone Your Honour?


Image: ‘The First Quadrille at Almacks’. (This work is in the public domain.)

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