A Woman by any other Address: Ben Zimmer and The Origin of Ms.

Ben Zimmer’s discovery last week of the first usage of the term Ms. in America sparked my interest. Zimmer found the term in the November 10, 1901 Springfield (Mass.) Sunday Republican under the heading Men, Women and Affairs. In the article, the writer attempts to fill “a void in the English language” by suggesting the now common term Ms. as “a comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation.”

All discussion of antedating aside (which, I might add, I find incredibly fascinating — who knew that finding the origin of a word was a competitive sport?!), Zimmer’s discovery led me to question the very necessity of the term Ms. and to wonder if any languages other than English have faced or do face the quandary related by the Springfield Sunday Republican writer.

Although we now know that the term was used as early at 1901, Ms. was not commonly used until the 1970s when it was firmly established as the neutral female complement to Mr. With the rise of feminism and women’s rights, it only seemed natural for women to define themselves by their status as a woman and not by their status as an unmarried (Miss) or a married (Mrs.) woman. In fact, the first issue of Ms. magazine clarified its name by stating that the term Ms. “is being adopted as a standard form of address by women who want to be recognized as individuals, rather than being identified by their relationship with a man.”

Whether or not the term is actually neutral can be debated, but what I found most interesting is its existence in the English language. After some cursory research, I cannot find any term equivalent to Ms. in another language. It seems that no other culture finds it necessary to allow for a socially neutral female address, which, of course, makes me wonder why this country spent so much time and energy establishing a debatably neutral term (many argue that Ms. still associates a woman with her marital status and is often interpreted as the address of an unmarried woman).

I’ve listed below the female addresses in Arabic, Chinese, Dutch, Filipino, French, German, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Vietnamese.

In German and French it appears that Frau and Madame are actually equivalent to both Mrs. or Ms. in English, but again, there is not a separate socially neutral female address.

If I’m absolutely wrong about my conclusion that there is no equivalencey for Ms.in any other languages, please let me know!

Arabic: آنسة (Miss); ﺳﻴﺪۃ (Mrs.)

Chinese: 小姐 (Miss); 夫人 (Mrs.)

Dutch: Mejuffrouw (Miss); Mevrouw (Mrs.)

Filipino: Binibini (Miss); Ginang (Mrs.)

French: Mademoiselle (Miss); Madame (Ms./Mrs.)

German: Fraulein (Miss); Frau(Ms./Mrs.)

Hindi: सुश्री or कुमारी (Miss); श्रीमती (Mrs.)

Italian: Signorina (Miss); Signora (Mrs.)

Japanese: お嬢さん (おじょうさん) (Miss); 女史 (じょし) (Mrs.)

Korean: 숙녀 (Miss); 부인 (Mrs.)

Russian: Девушка (Miss); Госпожа (Mrs.)

Spanish: Señorita (Miss); Señora (Mrs.)

Vietnamese: quý cô (Miss); Bà   (Mrs.)

  • Alphager
    Posted at 11:53h, 29 June Reply

    My understanding as a young (20<X<30) german native speaker, “Frau” in modern usage is 100% neutral.

  • Dee
    Posted at 20:34h, 29 June Reply

    Devushka isn’t necessarily Miss in Russian but can be used, for example, when trying to get a stranger’s attention for women up to..well it’s not clear what age exactly, somewhere short of grandmother, but it has nothing to do with marital status. It can also be used in the sense of young girl, maiden, or even virgin. Also as a historical footnote, during the Soviet period a common address for women in official situations was grazhdanka, feminine form of citizen, again no reference to marital status.

  • Larry Taub
    Posted at 10:07h, 30 October Reply

    I believe that in Japanese, normally, the prefix “san” (%u3055%u3093) is used as the general form of address in most cases for both men and women, irrespective of marital status. “San” becomes “sama” (%u3055%u307E or %u69D8) when a more formal, respectful honorific is needed, whether for a male, or femail, single or married.

    In Hebrew, although I am not 100% sure of this, the term gveret (%u05D2%u05D1%u05E8%u05EA) is the common form of address for both single or married women, that is, it is the exact equivalent of Ms. The term “Adon” (My Lord) is the general form of address for an adult male. But, again, I am not 100% sure.

  • Larry Taub
    Posted at 10:19h, 30 October Reply

    Sorry, the Japanese and Hebrew scripts in my above email seem to have been replaced by other symbols.

    Incidentally, as Mr. Zimmer pointed out in the article that appeared in the New York Times regarding the history of Ms., the widespread feminist use of the term and its general acceptance as a form of address was due to the promotional efforts of Ms. Sheila Michaels, one of the founding feminists at the end of the 1960s.


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