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Pronounced /ˈmɪstrɪs/Help with pronunciation

George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said recently that it would be impossible for Prince Charles to marry and also become king, because his accession to the throne would automatically make him head of the Church of England, which does not, officially, countenance the remarriage of divorcees. This leaves his current companion, Camilla Parker-Bowles (herself divorced) in the unenviable position of remaining what an earlier generation would term his mistress, though today that word is commonly eschewed in favour of euphemisms.

In a quite unconnected development Sue Wilkes, who is studying history at Leeds University, has announced she is taking legal advice in the hope of forcing her university to award her a Mistress of Arts degree instead of the more usual Master of Arts, on the grounds that women should not have male titles foisted on them without consideration for their sex. The University, as you might imagine, does not agree.

Mistress was once a straightforward word for a woman who had control over servants or was the acknowledged head of a household, or was the possessor or owner of something. The word was just the feminine form of master (both words came to use from Old French and are not recorded until the fifteenth century). Later still it became a courtesy title, sometimes formalised as in Mistress of the Wardrobe, and also came to be a term for a female teacher, among several other usages.

But from its earliest recorded use it had a sense also of “a woman who illicitly occupies the place of a wife”, to quote the OED. When Queen Elizabeth I, who disapproved of the clergy marrying, met the wife of one of Dr Carey’s predecessors, she is reported to have said to her, “Madam I may not call you; mistress I am ashamed to call you; and so I know not what to call you”. This sense (and sensibility) is now paramount, and it would be a strong-minded woman who would announce herself to be a schoolmistress in front of a class of teenage boys.

In regard to Mistress of Arts, though the historical analogies are there to be seized, my feeling is that Ms Wilkes is on shaky ground. The modern term master in the academic degree is a translation of the Medieval Latin magister (so the degree for which she is striving will be announced sonorously as artium magister at her degree ceremony), a person who is qualified to teach in the university. The movement away from titles that identify the sex of the person described, which has gathered pace in the past couple of decades — firemen are now firefighters; actresses frequently (though not always) prefer to be called actors; chairmen have turned rather uncomfortably either into chairs or chairpersons — has turned master into a unisex word, using the alternative meaning of “a person throughly versed in a trade or profession” which is not impossibly far from that of magister.

There are, for instance, few Webmistresses online; most are more than happy to be called Webmasters. However, a very few insist on Webmistress — and this may be the crux of the matter for Ms Wilkes — as deliberate feminist act, because they wish to reclaim mistress as a unpejorative term, free of the connotations which the past five centuries have loaded on to it.

No doubt Mrs Parker-Bowles would sympathise, but it’s going to be a long time before we can use the term without at least having to be wary of a possible raised eyebrow or snigger.

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Page created 16 Aug 1997