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Is Ms. from Massachusetts?

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April  February 16, 2007 05:06 PM

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In last Sunday's Word column, I mentioned the question of punctuating the title Ms. If it's not really an abbreviation, readers asked, why does it have a period?

No reason, was my answer, except to make it harmonize with Mrs. and Mr. -- and that answer still stands. But Ben Zimmer has sent along some Ms. information from decades before the earliest OED citations.

"Your reader who complains that 'Ms is not an abbreviation for anything and therefore does not need a period' might be interested to know that this has been a point of contention for quite a long time," he writes. "I discovered what is currently the earliest known cite, a 1901 article in the Humeston (Iowa) New Era commenting on the Springfield (Mass.) Republican's suggestion of Ms.":

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.

"Because the Springfield paper spelled the word with a period, the Humeston paper confusedly assumed it must be an abbreviation for a longer word," notes Zimmer. (And the Springfield newspaper's original citation has not yet been excavated from its hiding place. Maybe we'll learn one day that Ms., like scofflaw, debuted in Massachusetts.)

For more on Ms., see Zimmer's post at the American Dialect Society's Linguist List.

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