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Elusive 'Ms.' may be a Mass. invention

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April June 23, 2009 11:53 AM

Ben Zimmer, who has been on the lookout for early uses of Ms for several years, has found what may be the first proposal for the all-purpose female honorific -- in a 1901 edition of the Springfield Republican newspaper. Zimmer, executive producer of the language website Visual Thesaurus, reports the discovery today in his Word Routes column.

Previously, writes Zimmer, the earliest known Ms. dated from 1949, when Mario Pei mentioned it in "The Story of Language": "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.')."

But the 1901 proposal makes clear that the issue was convenience, not feminist concerns. "Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman," the writer notes. "To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss."

Clearly, what is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation, and what could be simpler or more logical than the retention of what the two terms have in common. The abbreviation "Ms" is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances.

This commonsense wisdom has more or less prevailed, but only after decades of resistance. Ms. magazine debuted in 1972; a decade later, the New York Times still banned Ms., and when William Safire endorsed it in a 1982 language column, he heard from a disapproving Mrs. Havens Grant: ''A woman who wants to be addressed as 'Ms.' is either ashamed of not being married or ashamed of being married.''

But Safire also quoted the Globe's Ellen Goodman, explaining why using Ms. would improve the Times's accuracy: "[The paper has] referred to me each time as Miss Goodman. Actually, my Miss name was Holtz. My Mrs. name was Goodman. But I am in fact no longer married to Goodman, or Dr. Goodman as The Times would put it. Now Miss Holtz isn't exactly right. Nor is Miss Goodman. Nor is Mrs. Goodman."

Four years later, in 1986, the Times officially admitted Ms. to its pages.

And yes, it does (now) have a period.


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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column The Word since 1997. E-mail her at freeman@globe.com.
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