Mistresses and Mrs.

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.’


  1. When I was a young lad, my older relatives used to spell out “Master” before my name when sending things to me.

  2. In a culturally diverse country is it not always easy to know somebody’s sex upon seeing the first name in a signature. This is why some people put (Mrs) between brackets after their signature, to mention that they are women, probably in case you need to reply, so that you don’t address them as “Sir”, or in case you need to phone them. So far I have never seen anyone use (Mr).

  3. Siganus Sutor says:

    “Your comment is awaiting moderation.”

    Please excuse me, Master, if I said anything wrong.

  4. Forgive me if I’ve told you before, but I recently read an autobiography by a chap brought up in a “big hoose”. At one stage in their lives, the four boys of the family were referred to by the servants as, as might be, Mister John, Master David, Robert and Wee Jimmy.

  5. Sod it, I left out the Oxford comma. Apols.

  6. J. W. Brewer says:

    I have seen the (Mrs) (also (Miss)) usage in signature lines of UK origin – don’t think I’ve ever seen it in a US context. I think it might be prevalent in the UK because it’s more common to use just initials in business correspondence, so e.g. “Deborah K. Jones” is pretty unambiguous but “Yours faithfully, D K Jones” is not, hence “D J Jones (Mrs).” Also, since “Ms.” seems less prevalent in the UK it is quite helpful to be given a cue on the Mrs v Miss choice so you can draft your response in accord with the addressee’s own usage/preference.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    maidhc: They were following custom. On ships’ passenger lists people are (or were) identified with their full names preceded by Mr, Mrs., Miss or Master, the latter for boys up to a certain age. The word is spelled in full so as to avoid confusion with Mr.

  8. In the UK, I once received a signed “Firstname Lastname (Mrs)” in reply to a letter I had sent out with “Ms Lastname” as the salutation.

  9. J. W. Brewer says:

    The Erickson paper claims that the “Master” usage for small boys is obsolete in the U.S. outside the Southeast. I’m not sure who has done what sort of scholarship tracing this. It was still I think in some degree of vestigial formal-writing-only use in my (definitely not Southeastern) extended family when I was a boy in the 1970′s, and I suppose I would not be surprised if my mother or others of her generation might still use it when say addressing correspondence to grandsons (I have produced only granddaughters for her, so I don’t have a experiential basis to say – I myself do not include a title on correspondence I address to my nephews). I should stress that my experience with this was written only, I don’t recall ever being addressed orally as “Master FIRSTNAME” even jocularly as a boy, although addressing a young girl as “Miss FIRSTNAME” is something I’ve certainly heard but seems in my dialect vaguely marked/rare if not overtly jocular. Indeed, if anything I’d say the “Miss FIRSTNAME” locution sounds like a southernism, almost a stage-dialect one.

  10. marie-lucie says:

    D-AW: In the UK, I once received a signed “Firstname Lastname (Mrs)” in reply to a letter I had sent out with “Ms Lastname” as the salutation.

    She wanted to make sure you knew she was properly married. In North America many married women, especially conservative older ones, object to being addressed as Ms. which is ambiguous and therefore suggestive of divorce or other less than respectable lifestyle.

  11. John Cowan says:

    I got letters addressed to “Master John Cowan” from my grandmothers and aunts back in the 60s, and it seemed bizarre to me then. I’m a lifelong Northeasterner (as opposed to a lifelong northeaster).

  12. Am I right that the British custom of writing Esq. or Esq’re after middle-class men’s names has nearly died out? I say middle class because my parents’ generation really did distinguish on Christmas card envelopes on a class basis between those who got Esq. and those (village people, mostly) who were Mr. The other thing from my childhood, a bit Jane Austen, was that it was important to write “Miss Smith” if it was the eldest daughter, and not “Miss Jane Smith” which was reserved for the younger ones.

  13. I feel like you stepped straight out of Downton Abbey!

  14. John Cowan says:

    AJP: Wikipedia says that by 1950, Mr. and Esq. were status equivalents: you could address a letter to either, but always wrote Dear Mr. X in the salutation. By 1970, Esq. was slipping, and by 2000 it was almost gone except in the most elevated circles: “British men invited to Buckingham Palace receive their invitations in an envelope with the suffix Esq. after their names, while men of foreign nationalities instead have the prefix Mr (women are addressed as Miss, Ms, or Mrs).”

    I myself don’t use basic titles on envelopes or salutations.

  15. Trond Engen says:

    I don’t know what this has to do with anything, but when I said frøken “miss” to a young Swedish waitress in Bergen a couple of years ago, I got coffee for free.

  16. J. W. Brewer says:

    One of the more old-line/posh New York law firms used to (and may still – my knowledge is that they did so at least as late as the 1990′s) address pretty much all letters to male addressees with a postposed Esq. rather than preposed Mr., I guess reflecting the view that if you were someone they would deign to write to you must be posher than a mere Mr. This was I think generally viewed as an idiosyncracy of house style, not least because it conflicted with the very common style in the U.S. (which I personally dislike and silently avoid compliance with whenever I can manage to) of addressing all lawyers (both male and female) but no non-lawyers with the post-posed Esq. I have occasionally gotten junk mail with both a preposed Mr. and a postposed Esq., which presumably reflects a glitch in someone’s database or mailmerge software.

  17. “Am I right that the British custom of writing Esq. or Esq’re after middle-class men’s names has nearly died out?”

    The one and only time I was addressed as Esq. was in 1991 on an envelope from my Moral Tutor containing my Greats results.

  18. Law firms and Esq:

    In some English-speaking circles, adding ‘Esq.’ after one’s name, whether the bearer is a man or a woman, indicates that the person is qualified to practice law.

  19. J. W. Brewer says:

    Yes, Esq. with the drifted meaning “the person just mentioned is licensed to practice law” is certainly one of the primary current AmEng uses, possibly the primary one, and sufficiently common in that context that it might be fair to say that it would be affirmatively misleading to knowingly use Esq. in connection with a junior employee of a law firm who had already graduated from law school but not yet passed the bar exam and been fully admitted to practice. I simply find this particular usage of Esq. personally distasteful and thus try my best to avoid it in documents I myself draft or that are drafted for my signature, although I have not embarked on a quixotic campaign to talk my colleagues out of this common usage. (I have other peeves and quirks about common lawyerese usages, but try my best to only be prescriptivist with respect to my own documents, not those of others.)

    Note that this is one of these areas where the response to social change and the entry of women in substantial numbers into the profession has been to apply what was historically an overtly-gendered word restricted to males to females as well, as opposed to switching over to a new seemingly non-gendered word or devising a workaround that avoids the need for such a word altogether. I myself think women who stopped to think about the issue ought at least in the abstract to find being called “Esquire” as inappropriate and insulting as being called “Sir,” but as previously indicated I have refrained from launching a quixotic campaign, and quite possibly by now a critical mass of those in and about the US legal profession simply do not understand the word to be gender-specific at all.

  20. quite possibly by now a critical mass of those in and about the US legal profession simply do not understand the word to be gender-specific at all.

    I think that’s quite likely, and I seem to have no idea how I feel about it.

  21. (One of the benefits of aging is that I no longer feel a pressing need to have an opinion on everything.)

  22. marie-lucie says:

    I did not know about this use of Esq., which I thought was exclusively British.

    In France there is a specific, legal title for lawyers (of which there are several kinds): Maître ‘master’, which is used both for men and women. The written abbreviation is Me (pronunced like the full word). When I was growing up, the best-known, most in demand lawyer in the town was Me Lapouge, a woman (women lawyers were still relatively rare). The words maître and maîtresse were used informally for male and female elementary school teachers respectively, but not as terms of address, except by young children beginning school, who were not yet familiar with how to address unrelated adults.

  23. In the UK the historical usage of esquire indicated that one’s family had been granted a coat of arms by the College of Arms but the holder was not of noble rank, e.g. minor descendants of peers, land-owners, Crown officials, or officers of state. In Court order of preference esquires would rank just below knights.

    In the 19th century usage was extended to members of self-governing professions such as barrristers, judges, doctors, military officers etc. and later came to be applied to anyone who would be considered a gentleman by birth.

    A man in clerical orders can never by styled esquire.

  24. As a child in the 1980s, I know I got letters from some of my mother’s relatives that were addressed to “Master Brett.” Until I turned 13, my airline tickets also had the “MSTR BRETT” as my first name.

    I have also recently seen forms that listed only “Mrs.” and “Ms.” as female title options. I am not exactly sure how the people who made the forms would parse “Ms.” versus “Miss.”

  25. vrai.cabecou says:

    It’s interesting that the paper traces the use of “miss” for unmarried adult women in England to French influence. When I was living in France, I was told that it was impolite to address any adult woman (and even teenagers working in shops) as “mademoiselle.”

  26. Walter Scott apparently pronounced “Mr.” as “master”, or else assumed that his mid-18C characters would have done so:

    ‘And did you ever see this Mr. Mac-Ivor, if that be his name, Miss Bradwardine?’
    ‘No, that is not his name; and he would consider master as a sort of affront, only that you are an Englishman, and know no better.’ (Waverley)

  27. As I said in the post, Mr. was voiced as “Master” if you were young and “Mister” if you were grown.

  28. Oh, but Fergus MacIvor Vich Ian Vohr is quite full-grown, and would certainly consider young as a sort of affront (and you would not have the excuse of being an Englishman who knows no better).

  29. Ah well then, I’ll withdraw from the fray and stay out of his way!

  30. John Cowan says:

    Yes, but Fergus McIvor is a full-grown man. He is, however, a territorial laird, and therefore a ‘master’ in that sense. Indeed, Rose Bradwardine continues:

    But the Lowlanders call him, like other gentlemen, by the name of his estate, Glennaquoich; and the Highlanders call him Vich Ian Vohr, that is, the son of John the Great; and we upon the braes here call him by both names indifferently.

  31. John Cowan says:

    In the 1980s I had a friend who was a criminal appeals lawyer (now deceased) whose pet peeve was people calling themselves attorneys instead of lawyers. He thought it pretentious as well as historically inept, at least in reference to trial lawyers like himself. (Rumpole, on the other hand, didn’t like it when Americans called him a trial lawyer: he thought he had passed his trials some years back!)

  32. J. W. Brewer says:

    I would agree with “pretentious” at least in some contexts, but I can’t make sense of “historically inept” unless it’s a reference to a distinction that I believe became obsolete in the U.S. by no later than the early 19th century, which would make it like objecting to the use of “esquire” for male lawyers who happen not to be armigerous. http://anselandassociates.com/ is the website of a Massachusetts law firm that refers to itself with the nicely archaic “Counsellors at Law and Proctors in Admiralty.” (I believe U.S. usage varies between “counselor” and “counsellor” in this context: I may myself have licenses using both spellings if I were dig through the files.)

  33. marie-lucie says:

    vrai cabecou:

    When I was living in France, I was told that it was impolite to address any adult woman (and even teenagers working in shops) as “mademoiselle.

    Things have changed a lot since the 18th century, especially in the last 40 years.

    “Mademoiselle” was banned from official communication some years ago. First the Post Office decided that any woman with a child or children (and therefore receiving government cheques by mail) should be addressed as “Madame”, avoiding embarrassing situations for employees dealing with some single mothers, as well as for the latter. Later “Madame” was extended to all adult women, as part of a series of government measures in the 1970s intended to reform the old (Napoleonic) Civil Code which discriminated against women. Nowadays any adult woman, or even a girl in an adult role such as working for a living, should be addressed as “Madame”.

  34. @John Cowan: “Attorney” is an interesting word, because it became pejorative in Britain quite a long time ago. (I think Samuel Johnson is recorded using it derisively.) However, no such connotation ever attached to the word in America, where it has continued in respectable use.

  35. John Cowan says:

    JWB: Obsolete in the sense that American lawyers are both attorneys (solicitors) and counselors (barristers), true. But we still have attorneys in fact (that is, people who hold a power of attorney; I have been one several times) as well as in law, so the notion is not quite nugatory.

  36. marie-lucie says:

    What is the actual Hebrew name of Moses? In French it’s Moïse (in two syllables “mo-iz”), in Spanish Moisés, I don’t know what it is in other languages.

    The name is also used in French as a noun: un moïse is a small basket-like cradle suitable for a newborn or very young baby.

  37. Partial topic shift, though still within the bounds of the (very interesting) paper: I was interested to learn that the “Mrs. John Smith” usage (which I grew up with but always thought was bizarre) didn’t take hold until about 1800. As a partial indicator since then,
    I ran “Mr. and Mrs.’ through Google ngrams: for American usage, this basically stays at the same level (with a few oddly-located peaks); in British, it declines quite abruptly between the mid-1930′s and the early 1940′s, and has been shrinking (more slowly) ever since. Of course a lot of these are probably just “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”.

  38. J.W. Brewer, “sir” is used on “Star Trek” (though not the original series) to address Star Fleet officers regardless of gender.

  39. This belongs in the other thread, but: marie-lucie, the Hebrew name of Moses is משה Moshe (with final stress). Moses is a straightforward Latinization; how the Romance languages got their -i-, I don’t know.

  40. John Cowan says:

    TR: From the Septuagint form Μωυσής, transliterated Moÿses.

  41. marie-lucie says:

    TR, JC, thank you. I was just now looking at the relevant thread and wondering why my comments were not on it. I must have been half-asleep already.

    So the Spanish form follows the Greek one. But where did the Greek form get the diphthong?

  42. J. W. Brewer says:

    marie-lucie: I am idly curious about the usage of “Maitre” above, if only because I may have occasion in the near future to send some formal lawsuit-related correspondence to various people in France, some of whom are not lawyers but others of whom are (male, as it happens) avocats. While I would be writing in English, I might left to my own devices start such letters “Dear M./Madame SURNAME” rather than “Dear Mr./Ms. SURNAME” as a minor stylistic gesture of courtesy. Would going with “Dear Maitre SURNAME” in that sort of context (for an avocat who I am writing to in that capacity) seem respectful, or merely hilariously unidiomatic? Same question (since the answer might be different) for third-party reference in the body of a letter (e.g.”as I have previously advised Mr./M./Maitre SURNAME . . .”).

  43. On the Moÿses (Μωΰσης) spelling in the Septuagint; the only other time where I can remember a Septuagint transliteration of a Hebrew name involving simple upsilon* (representing phonetic [y], a sound which as far as we know did not exist in the Hebrew of the time) is in the name שמעון, Shim’on, Greek Συμεών, conventionally Simeon in English.
    Both of these words have the upsilon in question next to a sigma which represents Hebrew letter shin, [ʃ] rather than the other sibilants spelt as sin, samekh or tzade (all of which could be represented by sigma in Greek). I sometimes wonder whether it was an attempt to capture some feature of the [ʃ] pronunciation?

    *The digraph omicron-upsilon representing [u] is of course very common in these transcriptions; the name Moÿses (Μωΰσης) by contrast involves an omega, and the ‘o’ and ‘y’ are in separate syllables.

  44. Hmmm. Greek upsilon at the beginning of a word always has a rough breathing, i.e. an H sound before it. Is an upsilon in the middle of a word a roundabout way of indicating that the sigma is supposed to have a SH sound, not an S sound? I suppose that partly depends on the extent to which the sound represented in English by SH is a combination of the usual S and H sounds, and it would take a phonologist (not me) to answer that.

  45. Further on my last comment:

    Greek sometimes has an H sound in the middle of a word, but it is not indicated in the script: there’s no rough or smooth breathing on non-initial vowels. We know the H was pronounced because it appears when the word is transliterated into Latin: e.g. polyhistor or tetrahedron.

    So, was the reader expected to read Μωΰσης as ‘Mohuses’, drop the U, and then turn the HS in ‘Mohses’ into a [ʃ] sound? Seems difficult to drop the U when it has an acute accent, or to combine the H and the S when there’s a vowel in between.

    In other words, I’m still confused, and my hypothesis has difficulties.

  46. J. W. Brewer says:

    Before Jerome starting working directly with a Hebrew vorlage, there were various “Old Latin” versions of the OT made from the LXX. I wonder (and I’ll admit I can’t be bothered to check wikipedia to educate myself on to what extent those versions have survived either entirely or in fragments or indirectly via quotations etc.) if any of those spell the Moses-equivalent name differently than Jerome did and if so if that sheds any light on the seeming peculiarities of the LXX spelling. Although I would guess the LXX spelling is the same as the NT Greek spelling, and Moses is certainly mentioned in the NT (and all Latin translations thereof)? It seems possible in the abstract (although I imagine there is a vast scholarship on this, because it is almost impossible to think of a semi-obvious question having anything to do with Biblical scholarship that doesn’t) that the LXX translators, whom we generally take to be somewhat Hellenized Jews living in Ptolemaic Egypt, had either a distinctive/non-standard way of pronouncing Hebrew or a distinctive/non-standard way of pronouncing Greek, either or both of which could have influenced how proper names got transliterated.

  47. There are two Greek forms, Μωϋσῆς (not Μωΰσης) and Μωσῆς. The former is very weird, but even the latter is slightly so because the Hebrew [o] is short: you’d expect Greek ο not ω.

    I rather like anhweol’s idea that υσ/συ is an attempt to write [ʃ]. If Hebrew [ʃ] was rounded (like English [ʃ]), you can see how that might make sense.

  48. I rather like anhweol’s idea that υσ/συ is an attempt to write [ʃ].

    I do too.

  49. Sturtevant (Pronunciation of Greek and Latin, p. 47) says that 2BC papyri confuse ω and ο to such an extent that they were probably pronounced the same in Egyptian Greek, so maybe that’s the explanation for the unexpected ω.

  50. AJP: Am I right that the British custom of writing Esq. or Esq’re after middle-class men’s names has nearly died out?
    John C.: By 1970, Esq. was slipping, and by 2000 it was almost gone except in the most elevated circles

    Well, what I can say in this respect is that in the early 1990s I had an account at the Royal Bank of Scotland and they used to send statements to “Siganus Sutor Esq.”, which amused me tremendously. I didn’t have any particular status, being just a student, not even in law.

  51. marie-lucie says:

    JWB: Maìtre

    In France you don’t use Cher/Chère to address a stranger, but since you are writing in English it is probably OK to start with Dear, but Dear Maìtre X might sound funny.

    In a formal letter in French you would use:

    Maìtre X Y
    (address, or at least the city)


    Similarly, if you were writing to an ordinary citizen, you would use Monsieur or Madame in the same way.

    If you are writing to a person you have already met (in a non-adversarial context), you could use Cher Monsieur or Chère Madame. If you have met them and socialized but don’t know them well enough to call them by their first name, you can add the last name after those words.

    I am not sure which of Cher or Chère you would use before Maitre for a female lawyer you knew slightly!


    At this point I googled “French terms of address” – there are many sites you can consult. The Oxford Dictionary Online’s advice is good overall but still uses Mademoiselle (no longer appropriate for adult women), and does not mention Maître. There are many others though, which I did not try to read through.

    Bon courrier!

  52. Back in the Forties I received Christmas and Birthday cards with my fore- and surnames preceded by Master, and I once received some piece of correspandance with Esq. postposed, but I don’t recall if my name was bracketed with Master.

    When I was young my mother was addressed as ‘Mrs. Man’, but by the Seventies she was introducing herself as Mrs. with her own forename. I remember her proudly showing me a theatre programme where she was listed as Wardrobe Mistress Muriel McIntyre (she was a volunteer). The Director may have been deliberately anachronistic using Mistress, considering his and my mother’s age.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    iakon, “wardrobe mistress” is the title of the person (traditionally a woman) in charge of the use and care of costumes in a theatre. For a big production, performing for a long period of time, this can be a very important job, supervising a number of assistants (theatre or dance costumes can get a lot of wear and tear). In a small amateur production giving one or two performances, not so much, and “wardrobe mistress” might have been a courtesy title that she did not know. The listing would have been clearer with “Wardrobe Mistress: Muriel McIntyre”. How were other women’s names listed?

  54. When I was young my mother was addressed as ‘Mrs. Man’, but by the Seventies she was introducing herself as Mrs. with her own forename

    The convention (at least in England) was that you were Mrs John Smith until John died, and then you became known as Mrs Mary Smith.

  55. J. W. Brewer says:

    An older convention followed by one of my late great-aunts (born and raised in what was once a majority-Anglophone part of rural Quebec, for whatever that’s worth – she’d be about a hundred now if still alive) was that you remained Mrs John Smith in widowhood (at least on the envelope) because Mrs Mary Smith implied you were a divorcee. By the time I was addressing envelopes I suspect this was a minority view, but my mother made sure I was aware of the particular great-aunt’s views on the subject so that I could avoid inadvertently offending her in her widowed years.

  56. she’d be about a hundred now if still alive

    I recall my mother — born in majority-Anglophone Toronto, and now approaching 100 — signing correspondence with “(Mrs. J.) Mary Smith”.

  57. I recall a story in If Only They Could Talk (I think), where James Herriot receives an enormous hamper from Fortnum and Mason for squeezing the anal glands of a lapdog.

    The hamper is of course addressed from the dog itself, not it’s old biddy of an owner.

    Herriot then makes the mistake of addressing his thank you not to Master So-and-so. This insults the dog, who feels its entitled to Mister. Or so the biddy reports back.

  58. John Cowan says:

    Speaking of divorce, back in the 1920s a Florida woman sued Time magazine for libel, because they had incorrectly reported that her husband had divorced her rather than that she had divorced her husband. The point was that at the time, Florida allowed only one ground for divorce, namely adultery, so in effect Time was charging her with adultery, a libel per se.

    Fortunately for the magazine, the court decided that although all men are presumed to know the law, there was no reason that a New York corporation should know Florida law as well as all that.

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