You receive a letter offering you the job of your dreams. The letter is signed “J. B. Cust, Director of Human Resources.” Assuming that all you know about J. B. Cust is that this individual is the company’s Director of Human Resources, how should you begin your letter of acceptance, given the limitations of the inventory of courtesy titles that English puts at your disposal? The question is not a new one, as suggested by the following piece that appeared in the Springfield, Massachusetts newspaper the Springfield Sunday Republican on Nov. 10, 1901:

“There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill. Every one 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. When an author puts on the title page of a book Marion Smith, it is not even possible to be certain of the sex of the writer, and it is decidedly awkward for a reviewer to repeat the name in full over and over again. It would be a convenience if explanatory titles were added to the signature, but it seems to be regarded as “bad form.” Signatures to letters also cause no end of trouble to correspondents. The “Miss” or “Mrs” sometimes added in brackets are but an awkward makeshift, and often it is taken for granted that the recipient of the letter will remember the proper style of the writer, when, as a matter of fact he does nothing of the sort. Now, clearly, what is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views 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. The abbreviation “Ms” is simple, it is easy to write, and the person can translate it properly according to circumstances. For oral use it might be rendered “Mizz,” which would be a close parallel to the practice long universal in many bucolic regions, where a slurred Mis’ does duty for Miss and Mrs alike.”

Indeed, Miss and Mrs(.) have a common origin, nicely explained in the 1880 Century Dictionary entries for miss2, missis, missus, and mistresswith which the Springfield journalist may or may not have been familiar.

  • Miss2, : “[An abbr. of mistress, at first prob. as a title, the form Mistress, as written Mrs. and pronounced mis´ez, being still commonly abbreviated in rustic use in New England and among the Southern negroes, to Miss, often printed Mis’.] 1. Mistress: a reduced form of this title, which, so reduced, came to be regarded, when prefixed to the name of a young woman or girl, as a sort of diminutive, and was especially applied to young girls (corresponding to master as applied to young boys), older unmarried girls or women being styled mistress even in the lifetime of the mother; later, and in present use, a title prefixed to the name of any unmarried woman or girl.”
  • Missis, missus: “1. Mistress: a contracted form in colloquial or provincial use. The word thus contracted is spelled out chiefly in representations of vulgar speech; but as a title it is in universal spoken use in the form *missess or rather *misses (mis´ez), and is almost invariably written Mrs. See mistress. 2. A wife. [Dial. and colloq.]”
  • Mistress: “[Formerly also mistres, mistris, misteris; < ME. maistresse, mastresse, < OF. maistresse…< ML. magistressa, magistrissa, magistrix (for L. magistra), fem. of L. magister, master, chief: see mister1, master1. In familiar use the word has been contracted to missis or missus, a form regarded as vulgar except when written Mrs. and used as a title, correlated to Mr.: see missus. The term is also abbreviated Miss, esp. as a title, now of different signification from Mrs.: see miss2.] 1. A woman who has authority or power of control…2. A title of courtesy nearly equivalent to madam, formerly applied to any woman or girl, but now chiefly and specifically to married women, written in the abbreviated form Mrs.… 3. A woman who has mastered any art or branch of study… 4. A woman who is beloved and courted; a woman who has command over a lover’s heart… 5. A woman who illicitly occupies the place of a wife. 6†. In the game of bowls, the small ball at which the players aim; the jack.”

While mistress still designates a woman of power in a few compounds (e.g., concert mistress, the principal violinist in the orchestra), as a stand-alone term, it has largely lost its luster (a fate shared by madam, as in the contrasting Madam Secretary and the mayflower madam), assuming a basically negative sense, arguably as a casualty of the social upheavals centering around “women’s place” that came in the aftermath of World War II and found expression in such general-circulation writing as Mario Pei’s 1949 best-seller, The Story of Language: “‘Mister’ is originally the Latin magister, ‘headman,’ ‘commander,’ ‘steersman’ (the root is mag-, ‘great’). The educational, intellectual or occupational headman becomes the ‘master,’ the maître, maestro and mastro of the Romance languages, even the Meister of German. Socially, he turns into a person who is respected because of his prominent position. ‘Mistress’ is the same word, to which is added a Greek feminine suffix –issa, which in French becomes –esse. ‘Miss,’ an abbreviation of ‘Mistress,’ was used under Charles I to denote a woman of ill-repute, but later began to be applied to an unmarried woman, with the spelling ‘Mis.’ In Shakespeare’s days, ‘Mistress’ was used for both married and unmarried ladies, and feminists, who object to the distinction between Mrs. and Miss and its concomitant revelatory features, have often proposed that the two present-day titles be merged into a single one, ‘Miss’ (to be written ‘Ms.’), with the plural ‘Misses’ (written (‘Mss.’), even at the cost of confusion with the abbreviation of ‘manuscripts.’”

Fortunately, times change and we change with them, sometimes kicking and screaming, sometimes more cautiously, as suggested by the usage note accompanying the American Heritage Dictionary (4th ed. 2000) entry for Ms. (which it defines as “A courtesy title before the surname or full name of a woman or girl…” and derives from a “blend of MISS and MRS.”]): “Many of us think of Ms. or Ms as a fairly recent invention of the women’s movement, but in fact the term was first suggested as a convenience to writers of business letters by such publications as the Bulletin of the American Business Writing Association (1951) and The Simplified Letter, issued by the National Office Management Association (1952). Ms. is now widely used in both professional and business contexts. As a courtesy title Ms. serves exactly the same function as Mr. does for men, and like Mr. it may be used alone or with a full name. Furthermore, Ms. is correct regardless of a woman’s marital status, thus relegating that information to the realm of private life, where many feel it belongs anyway. Some women prefer Miss or Mrs., however, and courtesy requires that their wishes be respected.”

Problem solved? Well, maybe. But what about J.B. Cust, Marion Smith, and the myriad others for whom a gender-agnostic courtesy title would be handy? A recent possibility has been suggested (pace Prof. Pei) by performance artist Justin Vivian Bond ( “I don’t like any of the prefixes currently in common usage as none of them seem to apply… check one: _Mr. _Mrs. _Ms. _Miss. None of these work so I have adopted Mx because it implies a mix which is the least offensive and most general way I’ve been able to come up with to find a prefix that clearly states a trans identity without amplifying a binary gender preference, or even acknowledging the gender binary at all.”

No Gender Available

J. B. Cust

Will Mx make it into general usage as a courtesy title for not just the transgendered but for anybody whose gender is unknown or irrelevant? Stay tuned.