Where’d the R in Mrs. Come From?

The salutation “Mr.” stands for “Mister.” The one for “doctor” is “Dr.” Both seem to make sense as abbreviations — they simply take the first letter, the last letter, and add a period. But the salutation “Mrs.” stands for “missus” or “missis” or something to that effect. Either way, there is clearly no “r” sound in it, which makes the abbreviation “Mrs.” a rather strange choice. Why is there an “R” in there?

Well, that has a simple explanation, which we’ll get to in a second. But the better question probably should be: Why isn’t “missis” (or “missus” a word? Or maybe “where’d the R go?” 

First, though, let’s address the case of the silent “R” in “Mrs.”  Today, “Mrs.” is pronounced “missis,” yes, and it is used in reference to a married woman. But when the term and the abbreviation alike were coined, neither was true. “Mrs.” was originally short for “mistress,” hence the “R.” (See, I told you that part was simple.) Basically, the “R” was always there. But we just stopped prounouncing it. 

Why? Mostly, it has to do with who was saying the word “mistress.” While “mistress” today typically refers to the woman that a married man is involved with that isn’t his wife, back in the 1700s, it didn’t have anything to do with the woman’s marital status — or, for that matter, with any relationship she had with a man whatsoever. Instead, it simply referred to her societal standing. Britannica explains:

[I]n the mid-18th century the title referred to a woman of economic or social capital. Mrs. was an honorific: a woman referred to as Mrs. generally had servants or was part of an upper social echelon. Most notably, the title Mrs. did not signify that a woman was married, just like Mr. today. In fact, Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 offers six definitions for the word mistress, which range from the respectful (“a woman who governs” or “a woman skilled in anything”) to the ironic (“a term of contemptuous address” or “a whore or concubine”), but no definition mentions marital status.

Of course, while only upper-crust women were called mistresses, people of all walks of life used the term to refer to these ladies of society. And over time, servants and others — those who weren’t part of the same society as the mistresses — developed “missis” as a shortened version of “mistress.” And over time, “missis” became the preferred pronunciation.

But the word “missis” (or again, “missus”) isn’t really a word. (Merriam-Webster considers both to be informal terms.) The reason: people who pronounced “mistress” that way weren’t doing a lot of writing. Writing was generally a very formal, proper form of communication, so the term “missis” didn’t get recorded in that way. In fact, as Mental Floss explained, the term “missis” “was first written out as a rough approximation of lower class dialect, the way servants in Dickens talked of their mistresses, for example.” And that was, typically, the only way “missis” would ever appear in print. Even when the formal term “mistress” fell to the wayside, the formal abbreviation — “Mrs.” — remained.

Ultimately, we were left with a mix: the formal abbreviation combined with the informal pronunciation — a change probably accelerated by the term “mistress” becoming, increasingly (and no longer ironically), a term of contemptuous address. Mental Floss continues:

The title form took on a contracted, ‘r’-less pronunciation, and by the end of the 18th century, “missis” was the most acceptable way to say it. (A 1791 pronouncing dictionary said that to pronounce it “mistress” would “appear quaint and pedantic.”) The full word mistress had by then come to stand for a paramour, someone who was explicitly not a Mrs.

Today, the “R” began to finally disappear. As a woman’s marital status should hardly define her, “Ms.” — pronounced “miz” — is increasingly the preferred salutation.

Bonus fact: While “Ms.” may feel very modern, it actually is more than a century old. As the New York Times reported, it was first coined in 1901 by a Massachusetts newspaper. The issue, though, wasn’t a critique about the importance of marital status; on the other hand, it was in recognition of the importance of the matter at the time. Per the newspaper (via the Times), the goal of Ms. was to help the speaker to avoid embarrassing himself: “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.”

From the Archives: Why We Have a Silent B: As in “debt.”