Ms: The honorific with unintended meaning

If you choose Ms as your honorific, others may think you mean more than you do.

And it may not be a meaning that applies to you or any way related to why you choose to be a Ms.

Ms has attracted such a range of meaning that even the editor of the Macquarie Dictionary, Sue Butler, feels that it may be time to update its entry.

Ms is older than you think

The honorific title for a woman — which, like its male equivalent Mr, was meant to give no clue as to an individual's marital status — has been traced back to the early 20th century.

US language expert Ben Zimmer located the earliest known citation in 1901 in a column written for the Springfield Sunday Republican. The tone of the column suggests that its author has come up with this idea.

After highlighting the embarrassment that can occur when Miss or Mrs is applied to one who is the other, the author writes:

"Now clearly what is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any view 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."

To wit the letters M and S. Bring them together and you have Ms, which leads then to a debate as to whether Ms should be followed by a full stop — yes, if you want it to look like "Mr."; no if you feel that Ms is not an abbreviation.

Taken up by feminism

Nothing much happened with Ms, but during the 1950s some business courses recommended its use as a way of addressing correspondence to women whose marital status was unknown.

But it took feminist activist Sheila Michaels to bring it into consciousness of the feminists of the 1960s and '70s.

Sheila died a few months ago and so I became aware of her influence reading her obituaries.

She first noticed the term on a letter addressed to her flatmate. The letter was from a Marxist organisation which was addressing all women thus. Sheila started talking up the idea, in particular during a widely heard radio interview in New York in 1969.

Why should all men be introduced as Mr but before you even hear the name of a woman, you find out if she's married or not?

Two years later, Gloria Steinem launched a feminist magazine and named it Ms.

The magazine took off, in popularity and notoriety, and Ms became common.

Many also took to not taking their husband's name if married, keeping their own name. It was a complete departure from previous generations when if a woman's maiden name was Julie Jones she became, upon marriage, Mrs John Smith.

Ms was meant to be neutral. It had no meaning. It indicated that the person was female. Just as Mr has no meaning other than "I'm a guy".

If you want to be formal you can introduce me as Mr James Valentine and then call me Mr Valentine, but outside of the respect you are implying by using it there is no other meaning attached to Mr. Ms was meant to do the same.

Ms for divorcees and lesbians, say listeners

On my radio show on ABC Radio Sydney, I wondered if Ms had really caught on. How many people used it? If not ,why not? And why do so many younger women prefer Miss and Mrs?

Had this campaign for equality failed?

I was astonished at what I heard.

One listener Jacklyn said when she heard Ms, she felt that the user was making quite an aggressive statement: "None of your business" is what Jacklyn heard.

Not neutral but a forceful rejection of any inquiry about relationship status.

She agreed that Mr didn't have any of that power, but use of Ms always left her feeling like the woman had something to hide.

She said she couldn't understand why anyone was so concerned with concealing their marital status.

Gabrielle called and was adamant that it meant divorced. Ms to her was only used by women after divorce because they could no longer be Miss or Mrs. Several divorced women texted and called in to say that's how they use it.

Toby, a woman and a definite Ms, says that even though she is feminist through and through, at the primary school where all of the women teachers are still Miss, any who introduce themselves as Ms she assumes they're lesbian.

And that interpretation became the one that everyone started to agree with.

Yes, they said, when they heard Ms, lesbian was what they assumed.

And then others called to say that's why they don't use it. They understand what it should mean but they don't want to be misinterpreted.

What happened?

Sue Butler, of the Macquarie Dictionary, pointed out that the same thing happened to suffragette.

It began as the name for someone who supported a woman's right to vote. It then became a pejorative. It also became synonymous in some people's minds with lesbian, but now describes a pioneer of women's rights.

Feminism has suffered the same fate. It's meant to mean the advocacy of women's rights on the grounds of the equality of the sexes. But many hear it as meaning a stridency, a man-hating agenda, and so forth.

"All the young women I know are a little guarded when they describe themselves as feminists," Sue said.

"It's always followed by an explanation, a qualifier of what they really mean."

So what do lexicographers do when they're writing their dictionaries?

Ms, and feminism, are meant to only have a single simple meaning, but that's not their fate in the world.

"Nothing changes for the definition of Ms," Sue said.

"It is a courtesy title which does not indicate marital status. But I think it is time to recognise that for some, it has acquired a derogatory sense, an association with what some will regard as extreme feminism."

And the word feminism itself?

"In this case," Sue said, "they are taking over the word and giving it their own meaning.

"It's part of a generally negative campaign run by society against women who poke their heads up.

"Unfortunately I think we do now need to write a usage note into our definition and describe how it's being interpreted and what's become of it.

"Poor word."

The problem is that Ms can only be neutral if its use is universal. Mr has no meaning because all men use it. While Miss and Mrs are still used, then Ms will take on meaning not intended by the user.

So I'm sorry if, like Sue, this has saddened you, but I think it's a history worth taking note of as we now consider similar issues of language and interaction for those who want their gender status to be neutral, or beyond the binary.

There is the introduction of a new honorific, a new title Mx — pronounced Mix, or sometimes Mux.

Its intention is for use on forms and when officially necessary, and it's being taken up.

But just as Ms can only really confer neutrality if everyone uses it, will that be the same issue for Mx?

It will confer gender anonymity if we all adopt it — I become Mx James Valentine.

We should be grappling with all of this. Life changes and our language always reflects that.

The hard thing is that it may not reflect the change you want.