Dot Wordsworth

Mind Your Language | 15 May 2004

A Lexicographer writes

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To pronounce when reading aloud an entirely different word from the one written on the page might seem a more than Mandarin complication, or perhaps be reminiscent of the Hebrews’ reverence for the Name that prompted them to substitute ‘Adonai’ orally for the word represented by the tetragrammaton. Yet we do just such a thing with Mrs.

Once it stood for mistress. Quite when the spoken realisation became missis is not easy to tell. ‘The contracted pronunciation, which in other applications of the word has never been more than a vulgarism,’ comments the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘became for the prefixed title, first a permitted colloquial licence, and ultimately the only allowable pronunciation.’ In 1828, Walker’s Pronouncing Dictionary remarked, ‘To pronounce the word as it is written would, in these cases, appear quaint and pedantick.’

I noticed an advertisement on the Underground today that made mention of ‘the Missus’. This is definitely the vulgarism to which the OED refers, of a piece with Mr John Prescott’s memorable excuse for driving a short distance at a seaside party conference, explaining that ‘the wife’ didn’t want her hair blown about. And we do tend to spell it so, with a ‘u’, though the ‘u’ is never pronounced as a ‘u’.

Apart from designating ‘her indoors’, the OED notes its use with reference to a mistress in the sense of a servant’s female employer, ‘specially used by North American Negroes’. It then gives a quotation from The Pickwick Papers which it so hacks down to save space that it hardly makes any sense. So I looked it out, with some difficulty, since the reference given is to chapter 36, whereas it appears in chapter 37 of my copy. Perhaps Pickwick is variously capitated. It is the episode where Sam Weller goes to a ‘Select Footmen’s Swarry’ in Bath.

‘Gentlemen,’ said the man in blue, with an air of the most consummate dandyism, ‘I’ll give you the ladies.’

‘Hear, hear,’ said Sam, ‘the young mississes.’

Here there was a loud cry of ‘Order,’ and Mr John Smauker, as the gentleman who had introduced Mr Weller into that company, begged to inform him that the word he had just made use of, was unparliamentary. [Note the ungrammatical but helpful comma.]

‘Which word was that ’ere, sir?’ inquired Sam.

‘Mississes, sir,’ replied Mr John Smauker, with an alarming frown. ‘We don’t recognise such distinctions here.’There it is. I wonder if Pickwick is funny any more.