I have often wondered if Mr. and Mrs. carry an echo of slavery. Do any of you know if that could be true?
In British English Ma’am is only heard in reference to women with the very senior social status. The Queen is addressed as Ma’am. It has made an appearance in TV shows as an honorfic for women who are senior police officers. Younger women, assumed to be unmarried, are addressed as Miss. These forms are generally used in contexts that are very formal by people wearing uniforms.
Madam is often used in a customer/client context by particularly unctutous sales people.
Miss is used by children to address women teachers, whether they are married or not. It can also be used as a put down by a mature woman who does not thing a younger woman being sufficiently respectful to their seniors. A cheeky girl would be called a ‘little madam’.
If you know someone well, or you make that assumption, British English has a lot of very familiar forms and these can be quite amusing. Here there are some interesting cultural differences between the North and South. Northerners are much friendlier to strangers and use a wide range of quite amusing forms, especially in working class culture. These do not go down well in London and the South, especially in a professional context.
I soon learned so stop the using the word ‘love’ and ‘darling’ when addressing colleagues after moving from the North to London. Women in professional roles who are very concious of their status take great exception to these forms of address, which they take to be patronising. In more relaxed environments where people are less uptight, such terms may be more acceptable. In the North of England familar terms used between relatives and close friends extend into the community and amongst collegues in the workplace. It is most common when adults talk to children…unless they are trying to maintain order, when formality is used to emphasis who is in charge.
Ms appeared as a conveniently ambiguous abbreviation in formal address where the married status of a woman is not known. Mr for men is already conveniently ambiguous, short for Mister for a mature man and Master for boy. A useful catch-all if you do not know the person you are addressing. I guess it was related to the etiquette of letter writing taught in secretarial schools in the 1970s. Letter writing rules change from time to time, but this one stuck.
These days, it is minefield. Where everyone seems to be wearing some kind of identity badge that no-one can see, yet are quick to take exception if someone does not profer the respect they imagine they deserve by the appropriate use of a salutation or a pronoun. Lots of memos are written in large, especially public institutions, pontificating about what is and what is not acceptable…this year.
I really don’t have much patience with this sort of thing and I still use affectionate, familar terms with women, tempered by a polite form that is appropriate and respectful according to how well I know them. I guess if I worked within a rigidly formal or very polticisised organisation, I would have to mind my language.
Boss is also used in the UK amongst men instead of the more formal sir. A taxi driver in London may well ask ‘Where to, boss?’, it is a bit more respectful that ‘where to, mate’. ‘where to, Sir’ is what you get when you have the money to employ your own chauffeur.
Everything in the U.S. carries echos of slavery, but Mr. and Mrs. are honorifics in most of the English speaking world (all as far as I know) even those untainted by slavery.
Mrs. (as opposed to the archaic mistress) does strongly suggest marriage. Combined with taking his last name, and even the custom of being “Mrs. John Smith” and it doesn’t take much to see why feminists revolted against the idea. The 1960s feminist movement was a lot of middle class white women who had gotten married, had children, and were put into the wife/mother box with no escape (or the daughters of those women) - that’s what The Feminist Mystique exposed. The first step in shedding the shackles of oppression was changing the terms of marriage. By and large, women don’t mind being partnered, but they do mind being defined by that partnership and controlled by it in ways men aren’t. Mrs. in the United States literally defines a woman by her marital status.
In slave times and Jim Crow times, and to a lesser extent later, adult black men and women were not generally addressed as Mr. or Mrs. by whites. Instead the “good ones” were sometimes graced with the mock-honorific titles Uncle and Aunt(ie). I call them mock honorifics because while they may sound respectful at first blush, in fact they were less respectful than the real honorifics Mr. and Mrs. This is one reasons why Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima are considered racist today.
That was what I always understood when I saw it in grade school in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Basically “Ms.” was a marriage-neutral title for women, whereas “Miss/Mrs.” drew attention to someone’s marriage status, for good or ill. I always took it to mean that women who chose “Ms.” were pointing out that they’re their own woman, and not defining themselves by whether they have a man or not.
It also denies you adulthood if you aren’t married. “Miss” means unmarried, but it also means young, unserious. The Miss/Mrs. system doesn’t really conceptualize a grown, never-married woman.
While we’re talking about that, don’t forget the old-school address of “master” for boys too young to be “Mister”.
Etymologically, “Mister” is indeed derived from the word “master” (as “Mrs” is derived from “mistress”), but that does not mean it has roots in slavery. “Master” was originally a form of address for anyone of higher social rank, but in highly stratified societies such as medieval England, there could be countless reasons why person A could be of higher social rank than person B; so the address of person A by person B as “master” does not necessarily imply a slavery relationship.
There used to be very strict rules about using honorifics: a boy was called “Master” if he still lived in his father’s house-- he became “Mister” in his own right as soon as he moved out. Effectively, something similar operated for women, as women typically only moved out to marry, so women who lived at home were “Miss,” and then moved out to moved in with their husbands, and became “Mrs.”
The oldest girl in a family was “Miss Lastname.” The second, third, and however many, were Miss Firstname Lastname." Assuming that the oldest one married first and became Mrs. Something, the second daughter moved up to being able to drop her first name.
Women used the honorific Mrs. with their husband’s name, as someone else pointed out. So a woman is Mrs. John Smith. Mrs. Mary Smith is technically wrong. A woman who continued to use he maiden name professionally because she had a career established under that name would still be “Miss Lastname” in the professional world, but in social circles, Mrs. husband’slastname.
Divorced women were Mrs. Ex-lastname Maidenname, at least in the US, and I think in the whole English-speaking world.
In the US, “Ma’am” and “Sir” are addresses of respect in general, because those are what officers are called in the US military. They got carried over as general addresses of respect for people whose names one did not know back when most men served a couple of years in the military from age 18-20.
Indeed, in the 1950s, George Wallace evidently gained some renown as a state judge by addressing black lawyers as “Mister [so-and-so]” as opposed to by their first name.
That seems oddly our of character for George Wallace. “Unreconstructed
Racist White Supremacist” comes closer IIRC.
George Wallace, as a state judge, had a reputation for his fair treatment of blacks (both litigants and lawyers). He ran for governor and was endorsed by the NAACP. He lost the Democratic primary to the KKK-endorsed candidate; announced he had learned his lesson; and… shifted his tone (and won the primary next go round). At least that’s what I’ve read.
Thank you. I was a kid on the West Coast during his short heyday of national prominence. By which time he’d fully embraced the populist white supremacist line.
IIRC he majorly recanted all of his earlier racist stuff late in life. Which recanting I had wholly discounted at the time as him trying to retcon his own history in light of the more enlightened early 21st Century. Interesting to learn it may have been more genuine than I’d given it/him credit for.
His life is also interesting given current events as it can be seen as another example of a principled man giving in to populism, and thereby making that popular (AKA unwashed) attitude that much worse than it already was. There’s some real unholy log-rolling there. To badly mangle a couple of metaphors.
Maybe it was holding the decorum of the court room over his feelings about black people. Or he may have made exceptions in his mind for black people who were able to become lawyers. I know unabashed racists who make exceptions for this or that black person for some sui generis reason.
In proper Victorian/Edwardian households, the senior female servants (the housekeeper and cook, usually) were always addressed as Mrs. So-and-so, regardless of their actual marital status. (cf. Mrs. Hughes on Downton Abbey). Meanwhile, the governess was always Miss ____, regardless of age (a married governess was functionally impossible, of course, since being a governess was a job for ladies with no other means of support, such as a husband).
I was a young adult when the Ms. shift happened. It was not about the lack of ‘seriousness’ of the term Miss. It was because every term of address for women referred to their marital status, unlike Mister, which was, and is, simply a term for any adult male. Feminists wanted a term equivalent to Mister, which likewise simply meant, an adult female. Really, just that simple.
I’m really surprised that this isn’t obvious to everyone – it certainly was then. It was exactly why men (and a lot of non-feminist women) hated it.
Anecdotal: All throughout school in rural SC in the 1960s and 1970s, female teachers were all referred to as ‘Miss,’ regardless of marital status (also noted earlier). Even the school secretaries, cafeteria staff, etc.
I’m going to take a wild guess that this was a hangover from a time when in rural SC (and elsewhere) married women weren’t allowed to be teachers, and possibly not to work elsewhere in the schools.
My wife teaches school in a predominantly Hispanic immigrant community near Boston. She’s known as Mrs. Telemark but they students all say “Miss” (no last name) as opposed to “Ma’am” when speaking to her.
Of course a widowed governess wasn’t uncommon and it was a socially acceptable occupation for a middle-class woman, even if she had children (naturally she’d have to make arrangements to board them with friends or family).
In Texas, even into the aughts, children of traditional Texian families were taught to call adults “Miss Firstname” and “Mr. Firstname”, regardless of marital status. This was considered the polite, formal mode of address.