Q From Shyane Siriwardena: A quick question on something that’s bothered me since grade school: where on earth does the r in Mrs come from? And why do we pronounce Mrs as missis or missus? Thanks so much! Love your site!
A I can give you a correspondingly quick answer to the first part of your question: the r comes from mistress. But that needs explanation.
The word mistress is a shadow of what it once was. It came into English from Old French in the fourteenth century as the female equivalent of master, a woman who has authority or who exerts control of some sort over other people. It usually referred to the female head of a household. It was common in later centuries to call a husband and wife “the master and mistress”. And mistress was also a title of respect conferred on the wives of farmers, the lower clergy, small tradesmen and the like — recall Shakespeare’s Mistress Quickly, an innkeeper in four of his plays.
In writing, mistress was conventionally shortened to forms such as Mres or Mris. The churchwarden’s accounts of St Mary at Hill in London recorded in 1485 a gift of a pyx cloth from “Mres. Sucklyng”. From the seventeenth century, the abbreviation was limited to the title mistress when it was attached to a proper name. The Mrs spelling had already begun to appear, in the later sixteenth century, initially in accounts, church records and the like. This is an early appearance in print, in an official publication of the Parliamentary cause during the English Civil War:
Another part of his Letter was to desire safe conduct from Oxford to London, for Mrs. Elizabeth Crofte with a Coach and six.
A Perfect Diurnall of Some Passages and Proceedings of Parliament and in Relation to the Armies in England and Ireland, Middlesex, 13 May 1644.
The Mrs spelling had long become standard by the time this famous novel appeared:
Upon these apprehensions, the first thing I did was to go quite out of my knowledge, and go by another name. This I did effectually, for I ... took lodgings in a very private place, dressed up in the habit of a widow, and called myself Mrs. Flanders.
Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe, 1722.
Nobody knows for sure how Defoe would have pronounced the Mrs. He might have given it the older full form of mistress, but he would probably have adopted an elided form, missis, which was in common use later in the century:
The same haste and necessity of dispatch, which has corrupted Master into Mister, has, when it is a title of civility only, contracted Mistress into Missis. -- Thus, Mrs. Montague, Mrs. Carter, &c. are pronounced Missis Montague, Missis Carter, &c. To pronounce the word as it is written would, in these cases, appear quaint and pedantick.
A Critical Pronouncing Dictionary, and Expositor of the English Language, by John Walker, 1791.
That comment was published before the first appearance of the spelling missus in the historical record. By the 1790s, it was being used in the West Indies for the way servants addressed their mistresses. That spelling is also found in American writing of the nineteenth century. In the early 1800s it’s recorded as a dialectal form in parts of England — Edward Moor commented in Suffolk Words and Phrases in 1823 that Misses was “the usual way of addressing a woman, especially a matron.”
Charles Dickens, who had an extraordinarily keen ear for the way people spoke, often recorded the missus form for the way that tradesmen and similar men addressed women, here in the fictitious northern English industrial city of Coketown:
On his telling her where he worked, the old woman became a more singular old woman than before. ‘An’t you happy?’ she asked him. ‘Why — there’s awmost nobbody but has their troubles, missus.’
Hard Times, by Charles Dickens, 1854.
The exact pronunciation has varied, as has the way in which those variant speech forms were transcribed.