Friday, April 18, 2008

We’re All Entitled

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I’ve always found our most common titles in English quite amazing. Have you ever really thought about Mr., Mrs., Miss, and Ms.? (Come to think of it, does anybody use Miss anymore?)

I’ve wondered why we write those odd abbreviations for the first two I listed, but when we say them out loud, something that doesn’t quite seem related pops out of our mouths. Mr. is “Mister,” but what’s a mister? I’m familiar with a garden gadget that keeps plants moist; that’s a mister. But a man? Is a mister a man who mists plants? Naw, that couldn’t be the derivation. And Mrs. is pronounced “missez,” right? Well, what happened to the r? Maybe we’re really supposed to say “mirsez.”

I don’t like feeling ignorant, so I dug into where these titles came from. Mister is a funny pronunciation for master. So that means I’m really Master Firsten. Oh, but wait a minute. I recall that when I was a kid, some adults put the title master in front of a boy’s first name to distinguish a kid from a grown-up. In fact, I do remember grown-ups sometimes calling me “Master Richard.” So somehow, master got changed to mister and mister got to be used for grown-up men. At least that seems to be what happened.

Moving right along, it turns out that missez comes from “mistress.” Mistress? Wait a minute! So my mother could have been called “Mistress Firsten”? Or maybe “Mistress Tess.” Wow! I think my feisty mother would have liked that. It conjures up all sorts of interesting images!

The thing that rankles is how these nice titles can go from being formal and polite to downright common and even almost vulgar. How, you ask? Use them along with a surname when you address people and you’re nice and polite: “One moment, Mr. Pearson.” “Hold on, Mrs. Longman.” But drop the surnames (maybe because you don’t know these people) and suddenly you’re crude and boorish: “One moment, mister.” “Hold on, missez.” Ah, but you know how to get around that problem, don’t you? You’ve got to substitute those two titles with two other titles if you want to stay polite, so you say sir and madam or ma’am: “One moment, sir.” Ooh, that sounds nice, and so polite! “Hold on, madam.” Uh . . . I’m not so sure about this one. Hmm . . . “Hold on, ma’am”? Yes! That sounds better. So what’s wrong with madam? I think we tend to use madam only when we’re annoyed or angry. To me it sounds exaggerated or overly polite, even sarcastic ― well, that is, unless you’re a butler: “Dinner is served, madam.”

But what if you’re addressing more than one man or woman? Then what? “One moment, sirs.” Nope, that won’t cut it ― unless maybe if you’re in the military. “Hold on, ma’ams.” I don’t even think ma’ams is a word! Now what do you do? Of course! You have to use two more different titles if you’re addressing more than one person: “One moment, gentlemen.” “Hold on, ladies.” (Is your head beginning to spin? Mine is!) Yes, ladies sounds nice as a plural title to use when the singular ma’am won’t do. Oh, no! I just thought of something. What about the singular, lady? “Hold on, lady.” Oh, my goodness! We’re back to crude and boorish ― almost vulgar ― and it can sound angry, too. So that means if you use ladies, it sounds refined, but if you use lady, you get the opposite result. (Are you shaking your head? I’m shaking my head.)

I think we need to recap: Mister comes from “master,” but that doesn’t mean he’s your master, and Master can be used with a boy’s first name if you want to be super-formal, although this title seems to be dying out. Now then, Missez comes from “mistress,” but that doesn’t mean she’s somebody’s mistress; it means she’s married! In addition, if we want to stay polite, we can’t address somebody as mister or missez without a surname, so we switch to sir or ma’am if we’re talking to one man or woman, and we switch again to gentlemen or ladies if we’re talking to two or more men or women. And we’ve got to remember that we can use ladies, but we shouldn’t use lady unless we’re upset and want to sound low-class. Have you got all that? And to think, our students have to deal with this daunting stuff, too!

Oh! And speaking of a married woman or “the missez” as some low-class speakers might say, what about Ms., which we pronounce “miz”? Most people don’t know that it goes back to the 1700s as a sort of slurred way of quickly saying missez. Besides that, it’s always been a common way of pronouncing Mrs. in parts of the American South: “Mornin’, Mizz Davis.” Sheila Michaels, an American involved in the beginnings of the feminist movement, said there should be a title for women that didn’t divulge their marital status, just as the title Mr. doesn’t divulge that about a man. These days Ms. is heard much more often than Miss or Mrs. Does that mean those two titles may be on the way out?

So I was thinking and thinking about these common titles, especially the female ones, and it suddenly dawned on me: When addressing a top politician like a president or prime minister, we say “Mr. President” or “Mr. Prime Minister,” but since we’re so au courant nowadays, if Hillary Clinton becomes the first female American president, how will she want to be addressed? “Mrs. President”? “Ms. President”? “Madam President”? Hmm . . . My money’s on “Madam President.” It strikes me as a cut above the other two options. What do you think? And have your students mastered the use of Mr., Miss, Mrs., and Ms.? I’d love to hear any war stories you’ve got.

By the way, mistresses and masters . . . er, . . . ladies and gentlemen, please stay tuned, because I’ve got lots more to say about titles, but that’ll have to wait for another time.


Comment from tinkerbellchime
April 20, 2008 at 10:09 pm

Wow! I love the examples and the historical information you included in this amazing grammar post. I didn’t know that the origins of “Ms.” were from the past. I had a professor that said that Ms. shouldn’t have a period at the end because it isn’t really an abbreviation; it’s a new word. I remember struggling with that issue–Ms or Ms.–for awhile.

I’m new at your blog, Grammar Guy, so let me introduce myself. I’m Christina Niven, and it’s nice to meet you and all your readers. I look forward to learning more grammar facts and factoids. You’ve got a lot of knowledge that we can all benefit from. I’m a big fan of Betty Azar, too, so I’m pleased to see this new website (Web site?).

Comment from Grammar Guy
April 21, 2008 at 5:00 pm

Welcome, Christina! I’m very pleased that you like my blog. I hope you’ve had a chance to read some of my previous postings. If you haven’t, you’ll find them listed on the right side of your screen.

This is a new Web site and a new blog that we’re all very excited about. I hope you’ll tell your colleagues that we’re here so that they can join us.

Thanks for your very nice commments, Christina, and I hope you get to visit us every week.


Leave a comment on this post