Via Anatoly, I present “Mistresses and Marriage: Or, a Short History of the Mrs” (pdf), a paper by Amy Louise Erickson about the complicated history of the word mistress and its abbreviations Miss and Mrs. Here’s the abstract:
The ubiquitous forms of address for women ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’ are both abbreviations of ‘mistress’. Although mistress is a term with a multiplicity of meanings, in early modern England the mistress most commonly designated the female equivalent of master — that is, a person with capital who directed servants or apprentices. Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, there was only Mrs (or Mris, Ms, or other forms of abbreviation), applied to any adult woman who merited the social distinction, without any marital connotation. Miss was reserved for young girls until then. Even when adult single women started to use Miss, Mrs still designated a social or business standing, and not the status of being married, until at least the mid-nineteenth century. This article demonstrates the changes in nomenclature over time, explains why Mrs was never used to accord older single women the same status as a married woman, and argues that the distinctions are important to economic and social historians.
Among other interesting points, the abbreviation Mr. was voiced as “Master” for boys and “Mister” for adult males, and I liked this footnote:
This observation, I discover, long predates me: in a footnote to the first American edition of Samuel Pepys’ Diary, Richard, Lord Braybrooke comments, ‘It is worthy of remark, that the fair sex may justly complain of almost every word in the English language designating a female, having, at some time or another, been used as a term of reproach; for we find Mother, Madam, Mistress and Miss, all denoting women of bad character; and here Pepys adds the title of my Lady to the number, and completes the ungracious catalogue.’