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Alex Beam

Happy anniversary, Ms.!

The female honorific that gained traction decades ago has interesting history - and Massachusetts ties

Happy anniversary, Ms.! No, not the turgid libber rag that is observing its 40th birthday this year. I mean the delightful, one-size-fits-all female honorific that was invented 110 years ago this month, in Springfield.

“There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill,’’ the Springfield Republican opined in 1901. “To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. . . . 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.’’

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The paper proposed “Ms.,’’ pronounced “Mizz,’’ which, it pointed out, was a lot like what women were already called in the South, where “Mrs.’’ and “Miss’’ tended to get slurred together.

What a great idea! The paper’s neologism was so bold and innovative that it was ignored for 70 years.

A civil rights activist named Sheila Michaels claimed to have created the title in 1961, but she admits that it was Gloria Steinem’s co-optation of the word for the 1971 launch of her magazine that put “Ms.’’ on the map. Language maven Ben Zimmer, who did much of the archeology on “Ms.,’’ notes that Michaels was plugging her new word on a public radio show, which is where I first heard the word “e-dress,’’ a coinage I’ve been trying to insert into the language - in vain - for more than 20 years.

But I digress.

Ms. afforded women the protection granted to men by the honorific “Mr.,’’ meaning that, absent a wedding ring, one’s marital status went unrevealed. “ ‘Ms.’ is being adopted as a standard form of address by women who want to be recognized as individuals, rather than being identified by their relationship with a man,’’ Steinem’s magazine trumpeted.

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“Ms.’’ isn’t problem-free, however. Like “Mr.’’ and “Mrs.,’’ it has a creaky plural form. Many men are supposedly “Messrs.,’’ many ladies are deemed to be “Mesdames,’’ and many unaffiliated women are . . . “Mss.’’? But that also means many manuscripts.

University of Illinois linguistics professor Dennis Baron, who is an expert on gendered and ungendered pronouns, thinks the intended use of “Ms.’’ is falling out of fashion. “For many people, it has come to serve as a trendy replacement for Miss, instead of as a marriage-neutral honorific parallel to Mr.,’’ he wrote me. “The new paradigm for such honorifics is often Ms./Mrs., for women, and Mr. for men.’’

Really? “That’s what I hear from my students,’’ he answered, “who say they want to be called Ms. now but Mrs. when they marry. They pretty much reject Miss. They also tend to see Ms. as a term for the divorced/widowed women of their mothers’ generation.’’

It was a Massachusetts newspaper that launched “Ms.,’’ and it was a Massachusetts newspaper - this one - that helped cement its place in common usage. Not long after Steinem launched her magazine, the Globe changed its policy on female honorifics, adding “Ms.’’ “There was the usual fuss from assorted Miss Thistlebottom types,’’ recalls former managing editor Tom Mulvoy, “and some bile tossed our way by cranks, some of whom toiled in our various editorial departments. After a while, everyone went back to their rooms and didn’t bother us on this.’’

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There’s more. Former Globe columnist Ellen Goodman deserves some credit for pushing the “Ms.’’-anthropic New York Times kicking and screaming into the late 20th century. In 1982, while debating the merits of “Ms.,’’ former Times language columnist William Safire cited an amusing and combative letter from a woman whom his style desk forced him to call “Miss Goodman’’:

“Actually, my Miss name was Holtz. My Mrs. name was Goodman,’’ she wrote. “But I am in fact no longer married to Goodman, or Dr. Goodman as The Times would put it. Now Miss Holtz isn’t exactly right. Nor is Miss Goodman. Nor is Mrs. Goodman.

“To compound the problem, I will be marrying a perfectly delightful person with a single flaw. His name is neither Goodman nor Holtz but Levey. I will not become Mrs. Levey, needless to say. Nor will I go back to Holtz. Due to bylines and children, I shall forever remain Goodman, unless I change my name this time to Goodperson. Or simply Good.’’

She signed the letter “Ellen May Holtz Goodperson.’’

Good for her. After four more years of careful deliberations, the Times started using “Ms.’’ in 1986.


Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.