Amplify: Miss, Mrs., Ms. or Mx.? A look at how honorifics have evolved over time

Tavia Grant’s feature on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, published in the Globe and Mail earlier this month, contained some jaw-dropping revelations about the extent of abuse-related scandals in Canada. But the piece included something else, too – a new, two-letter prefix that our readers haven’t seen before in our stories: Mx.

If the prefix is unfamiliar to you, here’s a quick primer: Mx. is a gender-neutral honorific used by a growing number of people who identify as non-binary. The term (usually pronounced “mix”) takes the M of our traditional binary honorifics, Mr. and Ms., and adds an x – the suggestion of an unfamiliar, unique or unknown element. Globe editors like me – I’m Carol Toller, deputy head of editing here – had been watching the prefix for a while, and noticed it making its way into stories in The New York Times and more recently, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary. To many of us, Mx. made sense as a way to acknowledge individuals who don’t identify as Ms. or Mr., and so as of this month, we’ve adopted it as official Globe and Mail style.

In the persnickety world of editing, embracing a new term in our time-honoured Globe and Mail Stylebook can feel like a massive step. Before we did it, there were questions to ponder: Was this prefix a passing fad or was it here to stay? Were there other terms we might want to consider in addition to it, or instead? We moved through our discussions quickly, but our conversations got me thinking about how and when the world adopted another non-binary prefix that seemed radical at the time: Ms. The term seems indispensable today, but once upon a time, it was called a “faddish, middle-class plaything.”

Remarkably (to me, at least), Ms. dates back to at least 1901, when it was proposed as a workaround honorific for women whose marital status was unclear: “Every one has been put in an embarrassing position by ignorance of the status of some woman,” an unnamed (dare I guess male) writer opined in the Sunday Republican of Springfield, Mass. “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.”

And the Times is still non-committal about Mx: A recent note by staff editors suggests that they’re using it for now, but not convinced yet that Mx. will stick.

Time will tell, of course. But meanwhile, I’m glad we gave Gemma Hickey, the gender-neutral individual in Tavia Grant’s moving piece, the prefix they requested: not Ms. Not Mr. But Mx.

But it wasn’t until the 1970s that Ms. took its place in the emerging women’s liberation movement. It was a heady time for women, and the new prefix represented an important new way for them to define themselves as individuals, rather than in terms of their relationship to men.

The term appears to have been viewed with suspicion by Globe and Mail editors when it first began entering the lexicon. A 1972 story about a “fighter for women’s rights” named Sherrill Cheda noted that she “uses the social salutation Ms. instead of Mrs.” but then referred to her as Mrs. Cheda throughout the piece. (Ms. Cheda, bless her, was urging teachers to examine gender biases within their classrooms.) I imagine that when she read the piece, and saw herself consigned once again to an identity she didn’t feel defined her, she likely felt the same way that non-gendered individuals feel when a “Mr.” or “Ms.” is tacked on to their names: unseen and unacknowledged.

Another Globe piece from the same year reported that the province of Alberta was “studying” the use of the word Ms., quoting the dean of women at the University of Alberta as saying the term was “gaining acceptance.” But oh, the pushback: Globe and Mail coverage quoted women bristling at the term, calling it “sexless,” and one letter to the editor had this to say: “Recent polls prove that the overwhelming majority of North American females don’t want to be tagged with the nondescript Ms. label which makes you a member of a tiny minority. Furthermore, The Globe does not discriminate against women by designating them in such a correct fashion. There is no substitute for good manners or proper etiquette and The Globe is to be commended for not capitulating to a small handful of sexual malcontents.”

In the end though, the sexual malcontents prevailed, and the term gradually entered common usage. It was recognized by the Oxford English Dictionary in 1976, but media outlets were slow to approve it. The Globe didn’t officially announce its adoption of the term Ms., but an archival search by our amazing staff librarian Stephanie Chambers suggests we started using it around 1984.

It took The New York Times longer, until 1986, explaining that didn’t make the move sooner because “it had not passed sufficiently into the language to be accepted as common usage.” Gloria Steinem, who founded Ms. magazine in 1972 (and who was doggedly referred to as Miss Steinem in media coverage of the event) may have blinked at that.

CAROL TOLLER

PUBLISHED OCTOBER 11, 2019 

UPDATED OCTOBER 15, 2019

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