Gary Littman


Garry Littman is the owner and director of The Language House in Geneva which organises English language training for professional people, companies and students. He was a radio and newspaper journalist in his native Australia and ran a restaurant in Kathmandu in his younger days. He is an English language trainer and an aficionado of pétanque.

Ms – the default title for women

What’s in a name? asked William Shakespeare in Romeo and Juliet.

 Well, a lot it seems. In recent years French speakers, especially women, have been grappling with the connotations associated with the titles Madame and Mademoiselle.  The latter, whose subtext means ‘unmarried’ or ‘available’ is considered condescending by many women and has lost favour in France. Why, they ask, should women have to declare their marital status? It's not important whether a woman is married or not. Furthermore this is not imposed on men (Monsieur). Last year Mademoiselle was dropped from official French government paperwork.

 The English language has had a neutral term for woman since the early 1970s which comes as a shock to many Swiss and French people. The title Ms pronounced mizz is now the default title for women in the English-speaking world regardless of whether they are Mrs (married) or Miss (unmarried). Most non-English people can digest differences in grammar, syntax and pronunciation, but many, especially men, have trouble incorporating sociological and cultural language differences such as the title Ms. They often look on in amazement and disbelief when told that the correct way to introduce a female colleague would be Ms Dubois or Ms Blanche Dubois.

 The term Ms can be traced back to the 17th century and may have originally been an abbreviation of mistress. In the early 1900s The Republican newspaper in Springfield (nothing to do with TV show The Simpsons) in Massachusetts USA wrote:

 There is a void in the English language which, with some diffidence, we undertake to fill. Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman. To call a maiden Mrs is only a shade worse than to insult a matron with the inferior title Miss. Yet it is not always easy to know the facts... Now, clearly, what is needed is a more comprehensive term which does homage to the sex without expressing any views as to their domestic situation, and what could be simpler or more logical than the retention of what the two doubtful terms have in common. The abbreviation "Ms" is simple, it is easy to write, and the person concerned can translate it properly according to circumstances.

 The term didn’t stick. It was refloated in the 1950s but only took off in the 1970s. Feminist advocate Sheila Michaels first suggested its use on a radio talk-show in 1971 as a gender neutral title for women. Gloria Steinem, one of the pioneers of the women’s liberation movement was listening and decided the term Ms would be perfect for the new publication she was in the process of co-founding.

 Ms. magazine was launched as a "one-shot" sample insert in New York Magazinein December 1971. Its 300,000 copies sold out nationwide in eight days. It generated an astonishing 26,000 subscription orders and over 20,000 reader letters within weeks. Two titles were born and still exist today.

 One of the early editions featured the iconic Wonder Woman on the cover under the headline Wonder Woman for President. This is what the magazine looks like today.

 The term Ms took some time to achieve its complete ascendancy. In the 1980s journalists (at least in Australia) were expected to ask women if they preferred to be called Ms, Mrs or Miss. By the 90s Ms was the default title. The Oxford Dictionary on-line has this definition:

a title used before the surname or full name of any woman regardless of her marital status (a neutral alternative to Mrs or Miss): Ms Sarah Brown

 Ms is here to stay. So if you wish to speak English correctly, both linguistically and politically, Ms (once again that’s pronounced as mizz) is a term to learn and use.  


grappling –  to grapple: try to find a solution to a problem

latter - the second of two things, people or groups that have just been mentioned, or the last in a list. The first is the former and the second the latter.

condescending - behaving as though you are more important and more intelligent than other people

default title  - a title you would normally use unless you wanted to make another choice or change

diffidence - modesty, not wanting to attract a lot of attention

maiden - a young girl or woman who is not married

a shade worse – slightly worse

homage - something that is said or done to show respect for somebody

didn’t stick – wasn’t accepted

ascendancy – position of power and influence




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