portrait of Mary “Moll” Davis (1675)
The word miss, used as a title prefixed to the name of an unmarried woman or girl and as a form of address, was originally short for mistress. It first appeared as mis, perhaps a graphic abbreviation of the form mistris. (Similarly, Mr and Mrs are abbreviations of master and mistress.) The noun miss is first recorded in Choice, chance, and change: or, Conceites in their colours (1606), by the English author Nicholas Breton (1545?-1626?), in which it has two of the meanings of mistress:
– a female employer of domestic staff
– a woman, other than the man’s wife, having a sexual relationship with a married man.
– first meaning:
Getting vp something early, [I] went abroad into the garden, […] I met (with wide heauen) the ioye of my heart, in a worde my mistris, who whether, according to the custome of her good houswifery, in rising early, or whether she vsed the prime of the morning for the time of her deuotion, or that she chose that time for the preseruation of her health, I know not, but there I met her at the corner of a walke with her waiting gentlewoman, who knowing her duty, and loath to displease, fell a little behinde her: nowe my Mistrisse had a booke in her hand, which shutting vppe with a modest smile, shee did thus salute me. Seruante good morrow, what abroade so earlie? I had thought no bodie had been so earlie a stirrer as my selfe: but I see I am deceiued: mistris quoth I, shall the seruant bee in bed after his Mis?
– second meaning:
Downe wee must sit in a ring: and fall to yea and no: one must propound, another answere, and the third giue the reason, and propound the next: […] If your mistris haue a fine wit, and your wife, but a plaine vnderstanding, will you loue her better then your wife? 2, no. 3 for that witte that will rule a wife will not please a Mistris If your mis. be kind & your wife dogged: wil you loue your mis. better then your wife? 2 yea. third for, there is cōfort [= comfort] in kindnes, but ther is none in doggednes.
Miss, spelt with an initial capital letter, as a title prefixed to the name of an unmarried woman or girl, is first attested in the diary of the English naval administrator Samuel Pepys (1633-1703); on 7th March 1667, Pepys went to Duke’s playhouse, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where he
saw ‘The English Princesse or Richard the Third’; a most sad, melancholy play, and pretty good, but nothing eminent in it as some Tragedys are. Only, little Mis Davis* did dance a Jigg after the end of the play, and there telling the next day’s play; so that it came in by force only to please the company to see her dance in boy’s clothes.
(* Mary “Moll” Davis (circa 1648-1708) was a comedian, singer and dancer, and one of the mistresses of King Charles II. She got married in 1686.)
Two years later, in 1669, the English poet and playwright Richard Flecknoe (circa 1605-circa 1677) used Miss as a form of address in an epigram titled To Mis: Davies, on her Excellent dancing, which thus begins:
Dear Mis: delight of all the nobler sort…
Miss is also used as a title prefixed to the name of a married woman. In The Female Patriot, N°. I. Addressed to the Tea-drinking Ladies of New-York, a poem published in New-York on 10th May 1770, in which Milcah Martha Moore and Hannah Griffits criticise British rule, a married woman named Madam Hornbloom is addressed to as “dear Miss Hornbloom”.
And in A Dictionary of the Kentish Dialect and Provincialisms: in use in the county of Kent (1888 edition), William Douglas Parish and William Francis Shaw wrote:
Miss. Abbreviation of mistress. Always used for Mrs., as the title of a married woman.
The title Miss also precedes the maiden name, retained for professional reasons, of a married woman, especially an actress. For example, Edith Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), New-Zealand detective novelist and theatre director, wrote the following in Vintage Murder (1937):
“What about Miss Dacres? Or should I say Mrs. Meyer? I never know with married stars.”
“She’s Carolyn Dacres all the time. Except in hotel registers, of course. Carolyn is a great actress.”
An orthographic and phonetic blend of Mrs and Miss, the word Ms, which originated in the USA, is a title used before the surname or full name of any woman regardless of her marital status. It has been adopted especially in formal and business contexts as an alternative to Mrs and Miss principally as a means to avoid having to specify a woman’s marital status, regarded as irrelevant, intrusive or potentially discriminatory. It is pronounced with final z, to distinguish it from Miss. Its plural is Mss or Msses.
The first proposal for Ms as a marriage-neutral alternative to, and a blend of, Mrs and Miss is found in the Springfield Sunday Republican (Massachusetts) of 10th November 1901:
Men, Women, and Affairs
There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill. Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts. When an author puts on the title page of a book Marion Smith, it is not even possible to be certain of the sex of the writer, and it is decidedly awkward for a reviewer to repeat the name in full over and over again. It would be a convenience if explanatory titles were added to the signature, but it seems to be regarded as “bad form.” Signatures to letters also cause no end of trouble to correspondents. The “Miss” or “Mrs” sometimes added in brackets are but an awkward makeshift, and often it is taken for granted that the recipient of the letter will remember the proper style of the writer, when, as a matter of fact he does nothing of the sort. Now, 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 doubtful 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. For oral use it might be rendered as “Mizz,” which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs alike.