THE HONORIFIC “MS.”

There are still many old-fashioned types who cringe at the use of the honorific “Ms.,” instead of “Miss” or “Mrs.,” in front of a woman’s name.

Dr. Boli has much sympathy for that reaction. A century and a half or so ago, you would have found him fighting a losing battle against the use of “Missus” as an honorific for a respectable woman. “Missus,” as the abbreviation “Mrs.” shows us, is a servant’s careless mispronunciation of “Mistress.” It is not, Dr. Boli said, a word to be spoken by gentlemen. (“Miss” is scarcely better.)

But Dr. Boli lost that battle. Furthermore, he has come to accept “Missus” as a form of address appropriate to women who wish to be addressed as “Missus.” In etiquette, it is a useful principle always to address people the way they wish to be addressed. Obviously the rule admits of some exceptions: if a woman of your acquaintance tells you, “From now on, you shall address me as ‘Your High Exalted Mightiness Princess Whizbang, Empress of the Milky Way, Dominator of the Universe, and High Exalted Grand Master of the Order of the Red Kettle,’” you are probably justified in telling her, “I think I shall probably continue to call you Ms. Miller in casual conversation.” But as a general rule, it works well; and therefore it behooves us to address women as “Ms.” who prefer to be addressed that way.

If it makes you feel better somehow to think this title is not some modern invention or ghastly corruption (like “Missus,” which still frankly sticks in Dr. Boli’s throat sometimes), then Dr. Boli offers this photograph, which his friend Father Pitt, straying a bit from his beloved Pittsburgh, took in a graveyard in Concord, Massachusetts. Click on it to enlarge it. You will note the date, and you will feel better.

Comments

  1. Chris Kirk says:

    I’ve looked on Father Pitt’s site with pleasure, and would like to note that the lettering on this stone is particularly fine. The lower-case ‘g’ is especially elegant.

    • Dr. Boli says:

      If you are a connoisseur of the lower-case G, then you will certainly wish to make the acquaintance of the anonymous artist whom Father Pitt designates with the name “Master of the Curly G.”

      • Chris Kirk says:

        I would include in my admiration the capital A, Y and W with their small but significant assymetry, and the wide curve of the lower-case ‘essen’ s, which are quite lively for stone lettering.

  2. The arguments, if I recall, revolved around the fact that Miss/Mrs conveyed additional information about the woman, whereas Mr conveyed no additional information about the man, and that this asymmetry was bitterly unfair.

    I proposed that we revive the term Master and contrast it with Mister, to tell the marital status of the man. Master would, of course, be single.

  3. And here I was expecting from the title for this posting to have something to do with a certain Edgar Allan Poe short story. Which in turn, when I first was exposed to it in junior high, I expected to be about a tiny woman found in a bottle. Back then, I had only seen Ms. as an abbreviation for Miz, but by now, I expect references to famous and obscure 19th-century literature on Dr. Boli’s Celebrated Magazine, so the wheel has turned.

  4. Ben Ieghn says:

    The engravings on this stone are incredibly crisp for its purported age…it appears to have aged nearly as well as Dr. Boli….could it be a replica of the original?

    • Chris Kirk says:

      You mean the headstone, or the good Doctor?

    • Dr. Boli says:

      Almost all colonial-era New England tombstones are as well preserved as this. The stone in which they were carved never erodes very much; after three centuries we can see, not only the inscription, but even the faint lines the stonecutter traced to align his lettering.

      In the 1800s, monuments were often made of marble, which was expensive but also fugitive. Inscriptions in marble are often completely illegible after a hundred years.

      Dr. Boli himself is the original, not a replica. He has not yet perfected the technology that would allow him to populate the world with duplicates of himself. But he is working on it.

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