ADS-L Digest - 28 Jun 2004 to 29 Jun 2004 (#2004-182)

Arnold M. Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Wed Jun 30 15:57:10 UTC 2004

On Jun 30, 2004, at 4:46 AM, David Bowie wrote:

> ...Actually, "Ms" may not be an abbreviation for all (or at least
> most) of us
> on this list, but i suggest that for many (if not most) real people,
> "Ms" is
> an abbreviation for "Miss".
> In fact, i know that that's what i thought it was until i was a few
> years
> into grad school, even!
> (I blame phonology--in my variety, word-final [z] just doesn't happen.
> This
> made hearing the classic example of the plural marker changing in
> cases like
> cat[s] vs. cad[z] a very bizarre experience, since it took me a long
> time to
> even be able to *hear* the difference.)
> Actually, as IIRC Dennis Preston pointed out at the ADS meeting in
> January
> (in the Q&A session after Janet Fuller's presentation), for a lot of
> speakers, "Mrs"/"Ms"/"Miss" are all homophonous--and, taking it
> further, are
> possibly even processed as the same word.

putting aside the questions of whether it's an abbreviation and whether
you use a period, there are two issues here about "Ms.": how's it
pronounced? and how's it used?

for a lot of americans, there's a three-way distinction in
pronunciation: Mrs. [mIsIz] (or [mIs at z], where @ represents schwa), Ms.
[mIz] (or [m+z], where + represents barred i, as in some people's
pronunciation of the adverb "just"), Miss [mIs].  but for a variety of
reasons, Mrs. or Miss or both fall together with Ms. for some speakers
(as reported above).  australian speakers often report [@] or [^] for
Ms.; my 1981 Macquarie gives only [@], but a 2001 edition lists [@] and

as for usage, here's a posting i sent to soc.motss not long ago on this
From: zwicky at Turing.Stanford.EDU (Arnold Zwicky)
Newsgroups: soc.motss
Subject: Ms. (was Re: Art Songs On The Rise?)
Date: Fri, 18 Jun 2004 17:32:42 +0000 (UTC)

in article <cauijg$p97$1 at>, moira de swardt
<firstnameds at> refers to a cat:

> "maf&dog, inc. " <m at f.chezdog> wrote:

>> Does Ms. Kitty have a blanket for the basket?

> Miss.  Not Ms.  She's never going to be allowed to get from Miss to
> Ms.  I'm having her snipped before she becomes interesting to the boy
> cats.

there's no telling how language will change...

the title "Ms." achieved its widespread use as an exact parallel to
"Mr." -- a title that doesn't mark marital status.  in its most common
uses, it replaces both the marked terms, "Miss" and "Mrs.", although
most style sheets recommend the use of a marked term for a person who
prefers one of them (as women who have adopted their husband's family
name often do).

this last fact -- the use of "Mrs." for certain married women -- in
combination with a general feeling that "Miss" is old-fashioned, has
led to a not uncommon (but still, i think, minority) usage in which
"Ms." serves merely as a modern replacement for "Miss".  in this usage,
"Ms." at least implicates, if not actually entails, unmarried status.

moira seems to have a usage that is exactly the opposite of this: "Ms."
as a modern substitute for "Mrs.", implicating, if not actually
entailing, *married* status.  i can see how this might happen: serious
feminists advocated the title "Ms." and were responsible for its
widespread use, so that the title became associated with mature,
independent women of some gravitas.  then we have "Ms." (vs. "Miss") as
a marker of adulthood.  a marker of adulthood is always open to
shifting -- in the linguistics trade, we call this "metonymy" -- to
mark characteristics *associated with* adulthood: marriage and
parenthood, in particular.  (we have often remarked in these parts on
the extent to which our culture views single and/or childless people --
including most l&g folk -- as immature.)

since moira's posting is about a cat, a creature for which the notion
of "marriage" is necessarily metaphorical, i'm not entirely sure
whether her use of "Ms." covers married status, parenthood, or even
just sexual maturity (potential parenthood).  the question is how she
uses the title with reference to human beings.  i'm guessing that it
specifically marks married status.

[in a later posting, moira clarifies her usage:

It was related to the question of sexual maturity / parenthood.

With humans I tend to refer to children as "Miss", consistent with the
cat use, and all adult women of unknown preference as Ms. I tend to
refer to male children as "Master" and men as "Mister".

In my own life I use the title "Reverend" and otherwise prefer the
title "Ms."  I cope with "Miss".  I am divorced and use my maiden name.
  Of course, I suffer under the additional complication that "Swart" is
a common surname in South Africa, so "Miss de Swardt" has a strong
tendency to be interpreted as "Mr Swart", a particular problem when I
worked in a law office and people assumed that my female voice
obviously belonged to Mr Swart's secretary.]

[back to AMZ:]

if so, we have the maximally confused state, in which "Ms." is neutral
(for most people) with respect to marital status, marks (for a
significant number of others) specifically unmarried status, and marks
(for at least some others) specifically married status.  it's almost as
bad as the single-earring-for-men thing: is it a signifier of gayness
or just coolness or one or the other depending on which ear it's in,
and if its significance depends on the ear, which ear is which?  since
all logically possible systems seem to have arisen naturally, the
single earring no longer signifies much of anything.  i think it would
be a great shame if "Ms." went down this path to meaninglessness.

zotling, father of ms. elizabeth zwicky...

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