New light on "Ms." (1901)

Benjamin Zimmer bgzimmer at RCI.RUTGERS.EDU
Wed Dec 29 18:55:44 UTC 2004

>From Newspaperarchive:

1901 _Humeston (Iowa) New Era_ 4 Dec. 7/4 As a word to be used in place of
"Miss" or "Mrs.," when the addresser is ignorant of the state of the
person addressed, the Springfield Republican suggests a word of which
"Ms." is the abbreviation, with a pronunciation something like "Mizz." But
the Republican does not tell what the new word is or how it is to be

(The page in question does not have a date or page number on the scanned
image, but the date at least is verifiable from surrounding pages.)

Previously, the earliest known cites for "Ms." had been the following:

 [1932 N.Y. Times 29 May III. 2/8 In addressing by letter a woman whose
 marital status is in doubt, should one write ‘M's’ or ‘Miss’?]
 1949 M. PEI Story of Lang. I. viii. 79 Feminists..have often proposed
 that the two present-day titles be merged into..‘Miss’ (to be written
 ‘Ms.’), with a plural ‘Misses’ (written ‘Mss.’).

See also the discussion here:

As noted by Denis Baron in _Grammar and Gender_, the 1932 New York Times
letter to the editor suggests that "Ms." (or "M's") was initially a
stopgap title for a woman with unknown marital status, rather than a
feminist innovation.  The 1901 cite accords with this, but gives the more
typical spelling of "Ms."

Also, Mario Pei implied that the early pronuncation of "Ms." was /mIs/.
The 1901 cite is proof that "Ms." was indeed intended to be pronounced as

The next step would be to track down the relevant article from the
_Springfield Republican_.  (It's interesting that the Iowa paper was
confused by the _Republican_'s suggestion of "Ms." as an abbreviation
without an expansion -- this would continue to be a point of contention
regarding "Ms." when it became identified with the feminist movement.)

--Ben Zimmer

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