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Southern "Miss" for married women?
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2010/03/06
10:11pm
lynnmelo
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I grew up down South (N.C.), and most of the time, people would refer to a woman with the title “Miss” and her first name, even if the woman was married. So, I would refer to my father’s friend’s wife as “Miss Violet” and my friend’s mother as “Miss Jeaninne.” I never really thought about it until lately. Is this something unique to the South? I’m wondering if anyone has any insight into whether this is widespread down South, and if it is, why we would use the term “Miss” for even married women.

2010/03/07
4:14am
Ron Draney
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Are you sure you weren’t hearing “Miz” from your father? Long before it became the pronunciation of the “Ms.” abbreviation used by the women’s movement, “Miz” was being used, always with a woman’s first name as you noted.

Singer Tiny Tim used this form when addressing or speaking of women, as a form of respect (the woman he married was always “Miz Vicki”, usually written “Miss Vicki” by newspaper people unfamiliar with the practice). He adopted this Southern form of address even though he was originally from New York city; apparently his own hometown didn’t provide him with a title to use that was sufficiently courtly to suit his tastes.

One of my professors in college did the same thing. He also addressed male students as “Brother” plus the first name (I was “Brother Ron” whenever he mentioned me).

2010/03/07
9:43am
torpeau
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I believe “Miss Violet” is a Southernism.

Several decades ago, I think businesswomen would be normally addressed as “Miss Smith,” “Miss Jones,” etc. rather than worry about whether or not they were married and were a “Mrs.”

2010/03/08
8:55pm
lynnmelo
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Interesting! Thanks for the replies.

2010/03/09
3:14pm
adventure
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I first came across “miss” as a polite term for an older lady (lady, not woman) in A Rose for Emily, a short story by William Faulkner we had to read in high school. The main character is an elderly woman known as “Miss Emily.” I remember being told that this is what Southern people do.
My aunt from Texas calls me “Miss Lilly,” even though I’m not married. I’m 25, which I think is still in the “miss” range nationally. Right? Totally.

2010/03/09
3:28pm
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Rather than a “Southerism” I always thought of it more as a “slave-ism”. There were three women in the O’Hara household. Mrs. O’Hara would have worked for mother, Ellen. But, Miss O’Hara would not have distinguished between Scarlett and Suellen. “Miss Scarlett” and “Miss Suellen” would have easily differentiated between them as well as acknowledge the slave giving “title” and respect to her owner or owner’s family member.

Although not necessarily the case for the novel, house slaves were often multi-generational care givers. Continuing to use the “Miss X” formula required no change upon marriage. It also simultaneously displayed respect and endearment.

BTW, I found this quote of the actress who played Scarlett’s black Mammy:

Playing the Mammy of Miss Leigh was just about the biggest thrill I’ve ever had.

Hattie McDaniel

Even long after slavery ended, she was still showing respect to the ‘Gone With the Wind’ lead actress.

Emmett

2010/03/12
7:03pm
lynnmelo
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Adventure (a.k.a. “Miss Lilly”–LOL!), I don’t know how I could have forgotten the Faulkner story. I teach literature, and I always assign that story.

Emmett, your theory sounds plausible. It may well be a carry-over from the 19th century South.

2010/03/12
9:12pm
crestmere
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Is this a Southernism for both whites and blacks or is it primarily African-American? Is it more common with females than with males?

I ask only because I grew up in the South for most of my life but my parents were not from there. My sister had some African-American friends growing up who called my mother “Miss Cindy” (I believe they were from Tennessee but it has been like fifteen years or more and I’ve lost contact with them) and I have an African-American friend who comes from a different state entirely who referred to a friend of her mother as “Miss Sophie.” I never called the parents of any friends by that, it was always either Mr./Mrs. and the last name or first names.

2010/03/14
7:04pm
lynnmelo
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crestmere said:

Is this a Southernism for both whites and blacks or is it primarily African-American? Is it more common with females than with males?

I ask only because I grew up in the South for most of my life but my parents were not from there. My sister had some African-American friends growing up who called my mother “Miss Cindy” (I believe they were from Tennessee but it has been like fifteen years or more and I’ve lost contact with them) and I have an African-American friend who comes from a different state entirely who referred to a friend of her mother as “Miss Sophie.” I never called the parents of any friends by that, it was always either Mr./Mrs. and the last name or first names.


No, it wasn’t just among African-Americans. Everyone I knew did this.

Going back to the Faulkner story, I just realized that the protagonist, Miss Emily, is not married. So, that sort of cancels out that as an example (I had forgotten that in my previous answer).

2010/03/15
6:21pm
harmonicpies
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I have always lived in Texas and the use of “Miss” preceding the first name of the person in question was (and still is) used as a respectful but familiar address to an adult. This applied to all adult women regardless of age, race, or marital status. I still use it at times, both consciously and unconsciously, with friends and associates of all ages for whom I feel affection and respect. As a child, I only addressed adults this way with permission. All adults were Miss/Mrs LastName unless they were introduced to me as Miss FirstName. On the rare occasion that an adult asked me to first-name her, I was allowed to do so only with the “Miss”.

It’s not as common now, and much less formal, but it’s still in use where prompted by parents. The children on my street address me and the other adult women neighbors this way, whether single, married, mothers, or childless.

2010/03/16
10:32pm
Jackie
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Growing up, I spent a lot of time in North Carolina, with family. Miss was always used in conjunction with a woman’s first name, be she married, single, divorced or widowed. Although, usually it sounded more like “mizz.”

My husband and I are in agreement that children should not call adults by their first names. It’s always Mr./Mrs./Miss LastName. Now, if the adult says otherwise, then they may use Mr./Mrs./Miss FirstName. But they may never call an adult strictly FirstName. We see it as a respect thing.

2014/06/11
10:11pm
JeepinMiss
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 I grew up in South East Texas.  I’ve been away since the 8th grade, and recently moved back after after 15 years.  Much in agreement with Lynnmelo, it is not a black thing, or a white thing. I think it’s a Southern thing.  For the past 15 years I’ve been in Tulsa, OK, and have properly (according to my raising) taught our children to call women who are not family “Miss (insert name here).” 

Unfortunately, I just started a job where my bosses are from Singapore. I called an elder supervisor Miss Maureen, and got chewed OUT by Chris because I don’t call him Mr. Christopher.  ARE YOU KIDDING ME?  GET OVER YOUR SELF!

Any references or or advice on how it’s used and where it originates from would be greatly appreciated.

2014/06/12
6:32am
Dick
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I will agree with all the posts from Texas. It may have started with blacks in slavery but there is no longer any racial connotation.  It is used by all ethnicities very informally for someone you may feel close to or want to be closer to.  When I was a child (60 years ago) it was not used by children to adults unless so instructed.  For children, it was strictly Miss or Mrs. with a last name.  Also, an adult would not use it with another adult on a formal level or with a new acquaintance.  With rules like that, it was not frequently heard, at least in my circles.  In more recent times, things have become much less formal and it is common to call everyone by their first name, even children to adults.  If you want to retain a bit of respect, you may request to be addressed as Miss <first name> or Mr. <first name> by children.  Even then, only parents can enforce this and often they don’t.  But as a Sunday school teacher for 7 to 10 year olds, I hear it frequently these days addressed to me as well as other teachers.  In formal school teachers are still addressed formally as Mr, Mrs, Miss <last name>.

2014/06/12
11:05am
New River, AZ, USA
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Dick said: In formal school teachers are still addressed formally as Mr, Mrs, Miss <last name>.

Yeah that’s the way it had always been over my 30 years of teaching. Then, at my last teaching job, which was at a charter school in Arizona, I was informed by the Director that addressing a teacher using only their first name was acceptable, unless you specifically requested to by called Mr. <last name>. Since the Director himself was OK with being addressed with his first name (and most of the other faculty were too), I decided to go with the flow. Felt a bit strange at first, since my previous job was at a very formal Jesuit private school, but I got used to it. Also, I was no longer required to wear a tie, which was always a pain in then neck.

That’s the thing about charter schools … they are pretty much free to choose their own protocols, activities, and curriculum, as long as the students meet state standards on final testing, which most of them did. Plenty of other charter school startups, at least in Arizona, fail after a year or two and lose their charter. But this one was one of the first in Arizona, and it’s still going strong.

2014/06/12
10:33pm
faresomeness
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I have met a number of older Cajun men who are invariably addressed and referred to as Mister (first name) as a mark of both familiarity and respect. This usage seems to serve a similar function in black communities. If you Google “mr followed by a first name” (quotes included) this come up: African American Behaviour in the Social Environment p. 166. There’s a discussion of “Fictive kinship” which in West Africa made uncles and aunts out of everybody; the practice continued in slavery times when true family ties could be easily disrupted. Miss/Mr followed by a first name become substitutes for “aunt” and “uncle”.

Wikipedia has this unsourced, but plausible comment: “In past centuries, Mr. was used with a first name to distinguish among family members who might otherwise be confused in conversation: Mr. Smith would be the eldest present; younger brothers or cousins were then referred to as Mr. James Smith and Mr. Robert Smith and so on.”

Finally this, from The Straight Dope. One writer mentions The Lord of the Rings and Sam’s frequent use of “Mr. Frodo” The contributor continues “Mr./Miss Firstname is how you address a person of quasi-authority in a friendly yet respectful manner.” Another writer says: “[this is] exactly how Tolkein uses it, demonstrating that this is used in more places than just the Southern U.S. Any stratified classist society will likely develop a similar usage. I’ve known Indian contractors that routinely addressed superiors in software companies this way…” And a final comment: “This usage is not uncommon, but in the United States, it has died out everywhere but the South. Thus, to American ears, it is a Southernism.” 

 

 

2014/06/13
4:25am
deaconB
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Dick said 

In formal school teachers are still addressed formally as Mr, Mrs, Miss <last name>.

Not necessarily. In teaching young children (in Pennsylvania), my wife as called Miss <first-name> rather than Mrs <surname>, even though she’d been married years and yeas before joining that facility.  I think it’s a ‘local option” thing.

For what it’s worth, the AP Style Book says you call people by the name they prefer be used. hat’s jake with me!

2014/06/13
12:56pm
RobertB
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I had no success getting women call me ‘M’Lord.’

2014/06/14
8:09pm
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lynnmelo said
I’m wondering if anyone has any insight into whether this is widespread down South, and if it is, why we would use the term “Miss” for even married women.

It was once common throughout the South and still is in the Deep South. If a married woman is named Louise Smith, “Miss Louise” is a familiar form of address. If, for example, you were a child and she was your school teacher, you would address her as “Mrs. Smith,” not as “Miss Louise.” A Southern accent, of course, will often convert “Mrs.” to “Miz” (not to be confused with the feminist “Ms.”).

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