Etymology Of Words And The Real Meaning Behind 'Mrs.'

Etymology Of Words And The Real Meaning Behind ‘Mrs.’


I’ve been obsessing over etymology of words lately. Some might find it a peculiar hobby, but in a way, my job requires a broader knowledge of words.
The reddit etymology forum got me hooked up on the history of words.

Reddit user niartiasnoba explained the etymology of the word clue: “comes from Clew, which means a ball of thread. Means what it does because Theseus (an ancient hero) was given a ball of thread to find his way out of a labyrinth.”

I did not have a clue!

Talking of labyrinths, user TheTwoLabyrinths explained the etymology of the word charisma: “Charisma comes from the Greek kharisma; divine gift. Charis was one of Aphrodite’s attendants.”

Good to know!

In this late-night quests for words I stumbled on an article published in the spring 2014, History Workshop Journal Volume 78 journal of radical history.

The article is named ‘Mistresses and marriage; or, A short history of the Mrs‘ and it was written by PhD Amy Louise Erickson.

She is the senior research associate for the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure and a historian of gendered economic, social and legal structures in early modern England.

It is in this publication that PhD Erickson takes us way back to the initial meaning of the abbreviation Mrs.


In the abstract of the paper she argues that both ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’ are “abbreviations of the word ‘mistress’, which in early modern England was used to designate the female equivalent of master – that is, a person with capital who directed servants or apprentices.

With that being said, their marital status had no importance on whether women will be addressed with ‘Mrs’ or ‘Miss’.

They were applied to address “any adult woman who merited the social distinction.”

Amy Erickson goes on to say that until at least the mid-nineteenth century “even when adult single women started to use Miss, Mrs still designated a social or business standing, and not the status of being married.”

She had cited the Oxford English Dictionary who in turn calls upon the meanings ascribed by Samuel Johnson in his Dictionary of 1755-6 and that can also be found in fourteenth or fifteenth century sources.

Namely, Johnson defined a mistress as: a woman who governs; correlative to subject or servant, a woman skilled in anything, a woman teacher, a woman beloved and courted, a term of contemptuous address or a whore or a concubine.

The word saw a shift in meaning in the mid-eighteen century with an introduction of a marker on the basis of marital status which overlaid the previous marker on the basis of social status.

The change was made to be “a title of courtesy applied” to elderly unmarried ladies, as a means of inclusion, “to increase the standing of the unmarried woman by putting her on a par with the married woman,” says Erickson.

Hey, thanks for the extended courtesy!

“Throughout the early modern period, England was the only country in Europe in which married women routinely took their husbands’ surname, a consequence of the distinctive marital property regime of coverture,” she adds.

In conclusion, Amy Erickson summarizes that “the women who took membership of the London Companies in the 18th century, all of whom were single and many of whom were involved in luxury trades, were invariably known as ‘Mrs’, as the men were ‘Mr’.”

“Literally, they were masters and mistresses of their trades.”


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