DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have heard you and others say that a woman should not use her own first name after “Mrs.” So Sarah Jennings, married to William Jennings, is Mrs. William Jennings. But in my town, I notice all the 17th- and 18th-century tombstones list Mrs. Sarah Jennings and so on.
If this form is common now and was common 300 years ago, how can it be wrong just because it was disliked 100 years ago?
GENTLE READER: That happy sigh you hear is of Miss Manners’ satisfaction at being confronted with an Aha – Caught you! question to which she knows the answer.
So please be seated and take notes.
Now – why do you suppose that “Mrs.” is followed by a period?
Correct. It is an abbreviation. Of what?
No laughter, please. This was a respectable title for several centuries. You remember Mistress Quickly from your Shakespeare class, and how she became Mistress Pistol by the time you got to “Henry V.”
Was she Pistol’s mistress?
No, no, let us not indulge in unseemly speculation about what might have gone on with Pistol or, for that matter, Nim, Bardolph, perhaps Falstaff himself, and heaven knows who else behind the scenes in the Boar’s Head Tavern during the various parts of “Henry IV.” In “Henry V,” she is Pistol’s wife and therefore Mistress Pistol, even if she keeps her maiden name professionally.
You see, the title of Mistress was used for both the married and unmarried, just as its equivalent, Mister, was and still is. (Miss Manners has often observed with some bitterness that the masculine titles, Mister and Sir, have remained unblemished over the centuries, while the female ones, Mistress and Madam, took on dirty meanings.) Seventeenth- and 18th-century tombstones can also be found in which Mistress is also abbreviated as – get this – Ms.
That’s right – using Ms. for both the married and the unmarried is not a modern feminist invention. No disrespect is intended in the old or the modern usage.
Later, two other abbreviations of Mistress, Miss and Mrs., took on distinct meanings: Miss meaning unmarried, and Mrs. meaning “wife of …” Therefore, Mrs. would not be used with the lady’s first and last names, because it would make no sense to call her the wife of herself.