Master, Mister, Mistress

The word master has several different, although related, meanings in English. And it has given rise to a well-known variant, mister. The noun master is almost exclusively used to refer to males, but there is a female counterpart in mistress. These words have also given rise to various abbreviations, Mr., Mrs., and Ms.

The etymology of master is, on the surface, rather straightforward. It’s from the Latin magister. Although if one gets into the details, one finds that the situation is somewhat more complex. Magister was imported into English twice during the Old English period with different vowel sounds. The earlier, mægister, eventually gave rise to the form mister, as well as several other orthographic variants. Somewhat later it was borrowed again as magister, with the vowel a being longer than it is today, but exactly how long is uncertain. The vowel in this second form shortened in the Middle English period, leaving us with the modern master.

The original sense in English is that of a man with authority or control over others. It appears as early as c.897 in Alfred’s translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care:

Thonne he gemette tha scylde the he stieran scolde, hrædlice he gecythde thæt he wæs magister & ealdormonn.

The sense of a teacher dates to around 888 in Alfred’s translation of Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae:

Se unrihtwisa Neron wolde hatan his agenne magister [L. præceptoremque suum]…acwellan.

And that of a skilled workman appears in the Middle English period, c.1300 in Childhood Jesus:

Gwan the maister was i go, Jhus tok alle the clothes tho.

The sense of the head of a business comes about a century later, c.1400 in Burgh Laws:

Nane sal hafe in his ovyn ma servandis na iii the maystyr and twa servandis & aknafe.

Finally, the sense of the head of a household appears rather late. Here’s an early example from 1536 in a letter by an M. Bryan:

Mr. Shelton saythe he es Master of thys Hows.

The use of master as a title goes back to Old English. But the use of master as a title for a boy or a young man is also from the early 16th century. From c.1533-34 in letter by an H. Dowes:

It pleased your Maistershipp to give me in charge not onlie to give diligent attendaunce uppon Maister Gregory.

The variant mister first appears as title. From the Accounts of St. John’s Hospital, Canterbury, 1523:

Paied to a carpenter by grete for mendyng of Myster Collettis house.

Today we normally think of the abbreviation Mr. as standing for mister. But it originally stood for master. From the Letters & Papers of J. Shllingford, 1447-48:

Maister John Gorewyll…Mr William Filham.

Now master and mister are almost exclusively applied to men. For the female equivalent, the English speaker turns to mistress. This word comes from the Anglo-Norman maistresse, and ultimately from the Medieval Latin magistrissa. The vowel shift from ai to i parallels the vowel shift in master.

In English, the original sense of mistress was that of a woman with the charge of a child, a governess. From the manuscript Sir Tristrem, c.1330:

To hir maistresse sche gan say that hye was boun to go To the knigt ther he lay.

The word was also being used to mean a female teacher from a very early date. From Ayenbite’s 1340 Covaytyse:

Thet is rote of alle kueade…thet is the maystresse thet heth zuo greate scole thet alle guoth thrin uor to lyerni.

The use to mean a female head of a household appears earlier than the equivalent sense of master. We see it before 1375 in William of Palerne:

Alisaundrine…attlede the sothe, that hire maistres & that man no schuld hire nougt misse, thegh sche walked…from here sigt.

Mistress has also long been used in sexual contexts. The sense of a woman courted by a man can be found as early as c.1425 in a poem:

Now good swet hart & myn ane good mestrys I dew recumend me to yower pety.

The most familiar use today is that of a female sexual partner other than one’s wife. This sense is also quite old, appearing before 1439 in John Lydgate’s translation of Bochas’ Fall of Princes:

Callid…a fals traitouresse…Off newe diffamed, and named a maistresse Off fals moordre.

And the rather specialized use to mean a female dominant in sadomasochistic activities is quite recent. It doesn’t appear until the 20th century, in F. Savage’s 1921 translation of L. von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs:

"Slave!" "Mistress!" I kneel down, and kiss the hem of her garment.

The use of mistress as a form of address gets its start in Middle English. Here’s an example from before 1425 in Chaucer’s translation of Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ:

O Maystresse, what demestow of this?

Use as a title for a married woman appears a few decades later, c.1461 in Gnatyshale’s Paston Letters:

To my ryght worchepfull Mastres Paston.

While we’re familiar with the use of mistress as the title for married women, it has over the years also been used as a title for unmarried women. From another of the Paston Letters, this one from 1474:

Myn own fayir Mastresse Annes, I prey you accepte thys byll.

Like the male form, mistress has been abbreviated. But three different abbreviations for mistress are in use today, not just one as in master.

The first of these abbreviations is Mrs., used as a title for a married woman. Use of the abbreviation dates to at least 1485 in Churchwardens’ Accounts:

Item, a pyx clothe of sipers frenged with grene sylke and red,…of Mres. Sucklyng’s gyfte.

The second abbreviation is Miss. We’re familiar with this today as a title or form of address for a girl or an unmarried woman, but the original use of this abbreviated form was in the sense of a kept woman. From Nicolas Breton’s 1606 Choice, Chance, & Change:

If your mistris haue a fine wit, and your wife, but a plaine vnderstanding…if your mis. be kind & your wife dogged: wil you loue your mis. better then your wife?

The use as a title for an unmarried woman dates to 1667 in Pepys Diary of 7 March:

Little Mis Davis did dance a Jigg after the end of the play.

One use of Miss that has fallen out of use in recent decades is as a title for a professional woman using her maiden name. This use was especially common among actresses. From Appleton’s Journal of March 1881:

The invocation of Artemis already spoken of might alone stamp Miss Terry as a great actress.

The third abbreviation is quite recent and is a rarity in that it is one of the few deliberately coined terms that has infused itself into the language to such an extent that we’re not even aware of its politically correct origins only a few decades ago. I’m talking of course about Ms. It’s a blend of Mrs. and Miss and it dates to the mid-20th century. From Mario Pei’s 1949 Story of Language:

Feminists…have often proposed that the two present-day titles be merged into…"Miss" (to be written "Ms."), with a plural "Misses" (written "Mss.").

These are the major senses of master and mistress. There are others, mostly subtle variations on the senses given here. Master is unusual for its flexibility in form, phonetic and orthographic. Many words have as many or more meanings than master does, but few have shown themselves to be as versatile in form.

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