Ms, Miss and Mrs

Yesterday I filled in and submitted a mail redirection form with Australia Post. In the list of names I wrote MR my name, MRS my wife’s name and MS our niece’s name. The clerk checked the form and asked ‘What is that? M-Z?’. I said ‘M-S’. She asked ‘So she’s been married and divorced?’. I said ‘No, never married’. She said ‘I’ll change that to MISS, then’.

I was already mildly annoyed for various reasons, and thought that arguing the point would only result in unpleasantness, so I didn’t.

So 1) an Australia Post clerk doesn’t know what MS represents. 2) an Australia Post clerk thinks it’s appropriate to change MS to MISS. 3) it is quite possible for people to receive mail address to different courtesy titles – MS and MISS, MRS and MS, DR and MR/MRS/MS/MISS or PROF and DR (and MR/MRS/MS/MISS). (It is even possible for people to receive mail addressed to two different names. We knew Dr Susan Green / Mrs Susan Prince (name slightly disguised). Not to mention many mis-spellings of names.*) 4) postal deliveries don’t rely on courtesy titles anyway. Australia Post doesn’t even use them. A few minutes ago I stumbled on their letters to my wife and niece in October notifying them that their mailing address had been changed by someone (me). Both are addressed to GIVENNAME SURNAME and there is no salutation. (*Apropos of not much, one of my sisters once worked as a secretary in a very small town. One day the post office delivered a letter for her boss addressed to “Grandpa, [name of town]”.)

The courtesy titles MRS, MISS and MS all ultimately derive from mistress, which is how they should be pronounced (and MR as master), but that’s not what happens in real life. Master is derived from Latin magister and magnus and mistress is master + ess. It is quite possible for a woman to be a master, of arts, for example, and even a bachelor. Note that doctor is grammatically masculine in Latin. (Before I was married, I was a bachelor (of music). Some time after I was married, I became a master (of arts). I am also a fellow (of a college of music).)

My previous magazine had a house style of referring to all women as Ms Surname. In one story, an elderly woman and her husband of identifiable national background won an award of some kind. The publicity material from the organisation referred to her as Mrs, but I had to change it to Ms. My current magazine has a house style of no courtesy titles at all, which raises the question of how we would refer to a wife and husband in the same article.

PS After I got home I looked at their form, and that column is headed: “Title (Mr, Mrs etc)”. I can’t remember what I wrote 3 months ago. Maybe I’ve still got that form somewhere.


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