Will You Marry Me, Miss?

Barbie and Ken dolls getting marriedTwo English words began to die during the 1970s, and good riddance. They aren’t dead entirely, but they’re moving into the sort of antiquated vocabulary we see only in novels.

The dying words—which still aren’t dead enough to suit me—are written as abbreviations, addressing women: Mrs. (pronounced “misiz) and Miss. Both of these words have the same source, coming from the older word “mistress”, which was a female counterpart to the word “master”. Oddly, Mrs. has a period indicating an abbreviation, but Miss does not.

I suppose even fairly young people are still aware of the meaning of these words, knowing that Mrs. is a title for a woman who is married, and Miss addresses a woman who is not. If we were a culture that had such dual terms for both men and women, indicating in both cases whether the person is married, then such a linguistic practice might only be a cultural quirk. But we don’t. For men there is only Mr. (which comes from “master”), and unlike the two words for women, it can be spelled out into a full word as “mister”.

The problem with both “Mrs.” and “Miss” is that the basic meaning is defined in terms of marriage. The words mean married or not married, but there is no such distinction for men. Consider two further facts: (1) In both polite and formal address, a woman will frequently be addressed with the title, so that in a sense, it is a part of her name; (2) Because the words indicate whether or not a woman is married, they indicate a woman’s relationship to a man.

Meaning, therefore, that even to say a woman’s name, you had to indicate her relationship to a man. Should we hire this woman as a teacher? We know from her name that she has a man in her life. Or that she does not. Should we hire this man as a teacher? We don’t know or care whether he has a woman in his life. What does that have to do with anything?

Each human being should be allowed to follow their talents, and should be judged according to ability and morality, as an individual. At least in the western world we have made some progress toward this goal, and part of that progress has been to start discarding nasty, useless words like “Mrs.” and “Miss” that irrelevantly classify women according to their relationships with men.

Around 1971 the new word “Ms.” (or in some cases without the period, also derived from “mistress”) seemed to appear out of nowhere. In fact, according to Wikipedia, a newspaper in 1901 had proposed the use of the word, but it didn’t catch on. Naturally…obviously…inevitably, conservative people said, “Oh my God, what are those radical feminists up to, making up a ridiculous word? There’s nothing wrong with the old way of doing things.”

But as always, the people who wanted to limit human potential finally lost (just as they will lose the gay marriage debate), and it is now common to refer to women as Ms., which allows us to say a woman’s name with no regard to whether she is married or single. Just as we do with men, this is as it should be. A woman’s ability as a judge or architect is no more relevant to being married than it would be for a man. With our language, we have moved a step further toward recognizing individuals for their abilities. This is better for women, but it is also better for all of us, as our society grows culturally richer, fuller, and freer.

In this regard, perhaps English is ahead of other European languages, though I don’t know enough about them to really say that. I know that in Spanish we see the titles “Señor/Señora/Señorita”, just like the English Mr./Mrs./Miss. Similarly French has has “Monsieur/Madam/Mademoiselle”. There may be people who are working to change these practices in other languages.

Of course there are still some English speakers sitting sullenly in their caves, insisting that we keep using “Mrs.”, and I guess we can humor them. They will all be dead soon enough, and we can get on with the future.

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