Most people know the “Mrs.” is the title (“honorific” or “form of address” in linguistics jargon) used for married women. But what most people don’t know is that “Mrs.” is not an abbreviation of anything. Surprising, but true! It is never spelled out in written form; however, it is spelled out phonetically as “missis,” “missus,” or “missess” when it appears as dialogue. “How can this be?” you ask incredulously. For the answer to this linguistic mystery we need to travel back into time more than six centuries. Hold on tight…
We have arrived in the mid-1400’s, when a married woman is addressed as “mistress,” the feminine form of “master.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites the earliest recorded use in 1463. Over time, “mistress” is abbreviated as “Mrs.” Now let’s fast forward 300 years.
Arriving in late 1700s, we discover for reasons that are not entirely clear, that “Mrs.” is no longer pronounced as “mistress” but rather as “missus” — this change is perhaps analogous to the great Vowel Shift of the 14th century. Therefore, in the 18th century, a married woman is introduced as “Missis Jane Smith” rather than as “Mistress Jane Smith.”
Fast forward once again — more than a century later and we discover that the word “missus” becomes a noun. The OED records one of the earliest uses in 1833 by Charles Dickens in a private letter: “Hint this delicately to your Missus.”
Similarly, the title “Ms.” used to address a married or unmarried woman, that was introduced in 1901, does not stand for anything. It is essentially a blend of Mrs. and Miss and pronounced “mizz.” And like “Mrs.” it is never spelled out in written form. The word is used in an article in the Springfield Republican, a newspaper that was founded in 1824 in Springfield, Massachusetts. The relevant passage is: “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.”
So the next time you are out with a group of people, impress them with this fascinating bit of trivia — ask them “so what is Mrs. an abbreviation for?” However, googling the answer is not permitted. Let’s see how well they do, Missy.
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For further reading: The Oxford English Dictionary
Critical Pronouncing Dictionary by John Walker