01(21): Ms, Miss, Mrs, and Madam. What’s the difference?

My Primary One English teacher was addressed by us students as Mdm Siti. In secondary school, I had a Chemistry teacher who wished to be addressed as Ms Ngo. Then, when I was in Primary Four, I had a teacher who was to be addressed as Mrs Loh. On the other hand, addressing my male teachers was so much more straightforward. Women have it more complicated than men in many aspects of life. Of the many aspects, the aspects of titles is one. Before we discuss the distinctions between the various forms of social address that women have, permit me to first discuss social titles given to men.

Consider the name: Mr John Smith. The typical man would have the title “Mr”. This is the most common honorific for men under the rank of knighthood. “Mr” is an abbreviation of “Mister”; the title derives from earlier forms of “master”. On the other hand, men who are knighted are addressed with the honorific “Sir”. For example, after Mr András Schiff was knighted in 2014, he became known as Sir András Schiff.

There is another honorific for males, albeit highly traditional. You won’t ever hear it in Singapore, but you might still hear it within conservative circles in the UK. That honorific is “Master”, and it is used as an honorific for boys and young men. Typically, when you imagine a young boy being addressed as “Master”, you would conjure a typical movie scene of a butler in a wealthy household addressing the young son of the head of that household. I quote from the Wikipedia article for the honorific “Master”:

“Master” was used in England for men of some rank, especially “free masters” of a trade guild and by any manual worker or servant employee addressing his employer (his master), but also generally by those lower in status to gentlemen, priests, or scholars. In the Elizabethan period, it was used between equals, especially to a group (“My masters”), mainly by urban artisans and tradespeople. It was later extended to all respectable men and was the forerunner of Mister (Mr).

After its replacement in common speech by Mister (Mr), “Master” was retained as a form of address only for boys who have not yet entered society. By the late 19th century, etiquette dictated that men be addressed as Mister, and boys as Master.

In regions which abide by British tradition, abbreviated forms of social titles and degree titles generally do not contain periods between the letters (eg Mr/Dr/MD/PhD/BS/BA). On the other hand, it is customary in the US and places influenced by US tradition for there to be periods between the letters (eg Mr./Dr./M.D./Ph.D./B.S./B.A.). Singapore abides by the British tradition. Hence, we do not have periods after titles.

Having established what it is like for men, let’s talk about the titles that women need to deal with. To begin, the titles “Ms”, “Miss”, and “Mrs” all ultimately derive from the term “mistress”, which dates to the 15th century. Here are some example texts from the OED (Oxford English Dictionary):

1463 in S. Tymms Wills & Inventories Bury St. Edmunds (1850) 36, I … be qwethe to my maistresse Clopton a spoon of berell.

1471 J. Paston in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) I. 443 Iff it come to Mestresse Elysabeȝ Hyggens … sche schall comveye it to me.

Today, the use of “mistress” to denote a married woman is now the least common meaning of the word.

Miss” is an honorific for young women (typically under thirty years of age) who are unmarried. It can also be used as a form of address. This is increasingly uncommon, as “Ms” becomes increasingly popular. The distinction between “Miss” and “Mrs” became problematic with the rise of feminism and more opportunity for women as more women entered the white-collar workforce. Women who became famous before marriage often kept their birth names, stage names, pen-names, or pseudonyms.

Mrs” is an honorific that is reserved for married women. Very traditionally, this is used along with the husband’s first and last name. For example, if John Smith were to marry Jane Doe, Jane Doe will be referred to as Mrs John Smith. However, it is now quite uncommon for a woman to be addressed by her husband’s first name. Typically, a woman is addressed by her husband’s first name only when they are addressed jointly. For example, “Mr and Mrs John Smith were invited to the gala”. Many married women now adopt only their husband’s last name after marriage. For example, Jane Doe would be referred to as Mrs Jane Smith after marriage. Here is a quote from the Wikipedia article which elaborates on the use of “Mrs”:

In several languages, the title for married women such as Madame, Señora, Signora, or Frau, is the direct feminine equivalent of the title used for men; the title for unmarried women is a diminutive: Mademoiselle, Señorita, Signorina, or Fräulein. For this reason, usage had shifted toward using the married title as the default for all women in professional usage. This had long been followed in the United Kingdom for some high-ranking household staff, such as housekeepers, cooks, and nannies, who were called Mrs as a mark of respect regardless of marital status. However, in the late 20th century the marital-neutral Ms became more common for women professionally and socially.

According to Wikipedia, “Ms” arose in the 1970s when this term started being used by those seeking to diminish the importance of marriage to a woman’s social identity. When in doubt, just use this title. You can’t go wrong because “Ms” is neutral and would be equivalent to the male “Mr” as it is not marriage-dependent.

Now, for the last one, we see the clash of cultures in Singapore. Singapore is in many aspects, the interface of the East and the West. This is where the term “Madam” or the abbreviated “Mdm” comes in. A variant of “Madam” is “Madame” and it comes from the French term “ma dame” which means “my lady”. In Southeast Asia, it is traditional for women to continue using their maiden name after marriage. It is not uncommon to see women being addressed by their maiden surname after “Madam”, while women would be addressed by their husband’s surname after “Mrs”. Women who use “Mrs” over here are typically more inclined to Western culture and influence. Of course, there are inconsistencies too. I know this particular woman whose maiden surname I know not. Hence, I address her as Mdm Tan (her late husband’s surname is Tan). Remember my Primary One English teacher I mentioned in the first paragraph? I’m pretty sure “Siti” is her given name and not her last name.

Take-home message: Aren’t you awed by the sheer amount of historical baggage that accompanies women’s honorifics? So many of these developments occurred because of societal norms which changed over the years. Some people (eg divorcees, single unwed mothers with children, older women who were unmarried) did not fit nicely into the categories which society had established. Furthermore, conventions from other languages have also influenced the use of these titles in English. The culture and history of a region does play a big role in how honorifics are used. As such, there have been inconsistencies regarding how the titles were used and are being used across the women, particularly for women.

Ultimately, a woman chooses a particular title for herself probably because she feels that it best reflects her values, beliefs, and current position.

Ask her how she wants to be addressed if you are unsure!

Yours faithfully,
Nicholas Loh
19 March 2019

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mr.
2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Master_(form_of_address)
3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mrs.
4. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/ms-mrs-miss-difference/
5. https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/11/02/what-are-mrs-and-ms-short-for/
6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madam

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