AA: "Why don't you read us a little bit from that article?"
BEN ZIMMER: "It starts off by saying 'There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill. Everyone has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs. is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts.'"
RS: "And this was written in November of nineteen-oh-one."
AA: "Do you have any idea who wrote it?"
BEN ZIMMER: "Unfortunately these newspaper items were unsigned so we don't know who the actual author was. Very likely a man, but the title of the section that it appears is Men, Women and Affairs. Springfield, Massachusetts, was actually a place where there was a lot of what's called first wave feminism -- so, for instance, the women's suffrage movement, where they were lobbying for women to have the right to vote. So it was active in terms of early feminism.
"But we could see from this article it wasn't necessarily a feminist argument that was being proposed. It was more just a practical solution to save yourself the social embarrassment of calling an unmarried woman married or vice versa. So it wasn't until later, much later, in the seventies really, that it became identified as something that had to do with the feminist movement and a proposal that had more to do with trying to have a non-sexist alternative to Mister, the male title, abbreviated Mr., which does not make reference to a man's marital status."
BEN ZIMMER: "That's right. That did a lot to boost the profile of the title Ms. when Ms. magazine -- which was associated with the women's liberation movement -- was first published in nineteen seventy-one."
AA: "You know, it's interesting, because the English language obviously goes back centuries and we've had these distinctions of Miss/Mrs. for, I assume, quite a long time. Why did it take this long for someone to come up with a solution, and were there earlier attempts at finding a single term for a woman who might be married or might not be married?"
BEN ZIMMER: "Well, these titles have really changed over time. And, in fact, the term Mistress, which is actually where Mrs. comes from originally. Mrs. was originally an abbreviation of Mistress, but that became pronounced as missus even though it retained the r in the abbreviation. Mistress was one title that in certain places in the U.K. or the U.S. could possibly refer to a woman regardless of marital status. But there wasn't anything over all like that. In general this distinction between unmarried woman and married women was maintained.
"A lot of that had to do with the fact that when a woman married, she was expected to take the last name of the husband, and so you moved from Miss Smith to Mrs. Jones. Well, this is another thing that changed quite a lot, particularly in the nineteen sixties and seventies with the feminist movement, where more women were retaining their maiden name. And then it didn't really make any sense to use Miss or Mrs. if a woman is married but has not changed her name to her husband's name."
AA: Ben Zimmer writes about language as executive producer of the Web site visualthesaurus.com. And a style point here -- even though Ms. is not an abbreviation, it appears with a period in most American usage. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Archives are at voanews.com/wordmaster. With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.