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The Case of the Missing ‘Miss’

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Philip Roth: not the sort of person you would call “Phil.” (Photo: Joe Tabbacca, AP)

I recently RSVP’d for an event at my university and was asked to choose the “title” I preferred. No surprise in the choices that were offered, but I was surprised by a choice that was not.

Dr., Mr., Mrs., and Ms. were the options. Missing — no pun intended — was Miss. I was well aware that Ms. has been commonly used as a courtesy title since the ’70s, but I was a bit puzzled by this suggestion that one of the terms it was designed to replace (Mrs.) was still standing, while the other (Miss) may soon be defunct, if it isn’t already. Could Miss be going down the same road as Master, the boy courtesy title I swear was applied to me more than a couple of times on Bar Mitzvah invitations back in the day?

A look at Google Ngram Viewer revealed that (in the English-language books the application tracks) Miss is about 75 percent less frequently used than it was 100 years ago, though it is still used about twice as much as Mrs., and both terms far outstrip Ms. (They outstrip it by even more than the graph suggests, given that MS also stand for “Multiple Sclerosis,” “manuscript,” and a lot of other things.)

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On Twitter, I took note of this apparent trend, and got some interesting responses. @LinguistLaura had written about the same missing-Miss-option in a 2013 blog post, and Dennis Baron pointed out that in 1989, he had observed: “Many single women — particularly younger ones — use [Ms.] as a trendy substitute for Miss, intending to adopt Mrs. when they marry.”

On the other hand, someone else commented, “A group of young women recently told me they thought Ms was ‘only for feminists and women who were divorced.’” Along the same lines, Lynne Murphy, a linguist based in Britain, tweeted, “My students tell me Ms is for the middle-aged.”

Jan Freeman accurately (to me) teased out the meanings behind the Mrs.-Ms. binary, where the one option has a pretty particular meaning and the other does not: “Mrs.=I am/was married, took husband’s name; Ms.=Am single, or married using own name, or divorced, or ‘none of yr business.’” I would actually add one more “or” on the Ms. side: “am ideologically and politically committed to the term Ms. and all it represents.”

As my Lingua Franca colleague Lucy Ferriss noted a couple of years ago, another courtesy title, Mx., has been gaining popularity. Mx. is not only marriage-neutral but gender-neutral; in Britain it can already be used on driver’s licenses and other official documents.

Of course, the whole subject has a bit of an antique air to it, given that more and more, the entire world seems to be on a first-name basis. When I last addressed this topic, in 2012, I noted: “I have long been accustomed to all sorts of people I have never met before calling me ‘Ben’: salesmen, elementary-school students, doctors, nurses, customer-care representatives speaking from every continent on the earth.”

The trend has continued apace since then, and has become especially pronounced in email. As long as the power, prestige, and/or age disparity between the correspondents isn’t too cavernous (low-level employee writing to CEO, student writing to professor, you or me writing to Philip Roth), there’s a great rush to get to first names. But by what route? One option of course is to start on that basis, but to some this feels presumptuous. I always felt the “Dear Ben (if I may)” move was a little cheesy. A nice solution I see more and more is Person A using Person B’s courtesy title (not Mrs., of course) but signing the e-mail with their own first name. That gives B the license to address A by first name, and then sign his or her first name. Then the pair is good to go.

Talk to you soon,

Ben

 

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