4

I originally heard this in an old episode of the Simpsons, where Apu refers to Marge as "Mrs. Homer Simpson". I've also noticed something similar in the movie "The Wedding Singer" where the titular character refers to a newly-wed couple as "Mr. and Mrs. Harold Fonda", and a few other times on TV shows at weddings.

Why would one refer to a lady as "Mrs. ${HUSBAND_FIRST_NAME} ${FAMILY_LAST_NAME}" like this? Wouldn't it make sense to just say "Mrs. ${FAMILY_LAST_NAME}", since that's the name the lady has taken (assuming she takes her husband's last name). Why the use of the husband's first name in addressing her, when it's not a name she has elected to "take"? Is this common in UK English as opposed to US English, or is it some sort of cultural norm?

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    It was a cultural norm in the USA as late as the 1960s or 70s. It is still a stylistic choice. – AmE speaker Sep 26 '17 at 13:55
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    In case you are under the impression this is archaic, all the mail arrives at mom's house addressed to Mrs. Brian Sweet. This is partly because many of the accounts wanted to charge as much as $60 to change the name when dad died. So I just called back the next day and told them there was a typo, it was supposed to be Mrs., not Mr. As others have mentioned, there are a lot of legal peculiarities that make this still a common occurrence, especially among widows. – Phil Sweet Sep 26 '17 at 19:22
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    Why the close votes? – Phil Sweet Sep 26 '17 at 19:26
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    This may be the best question posted at EL&U in the past 24 hours. The OP provides context for why the question arose—and I don't see any likelihood of obtaining an answer in general-reference resources. On top of that, it has drawn an extremely well-informed and useful answer from 1006a. I wholeheartedly agree with Phil Sweet that the question should remain open. – Sven Yargs Sep 26 '17 at 20:00
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    @DevNull: I dunno, maybe someone thinks you should have better Googling skills or that you should have looked in etiquette books. I don't really like the "not enough research" close reason because it seems to be too arbitrarily applied IMO and it's used to close a lot of interesting questions. I preferred when it was restricted (in theory) to "gen-ref" i.e. the answer is likely to be in a dictionary or thesaurus. But some people on this site have very high standards for showing "research" effort – sumelic Sep 26 '17 at 20:01
6

By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband
(from William Blackstone's 1765 Commentaries on the Laws of England)

In other words, under common law (which is the basis of both UK and US law) in the 18th and 19th centuries, a married woman lost her legal personal identity and became an adjunct of her husband. A common way of saying this (I heard it in law school, and many unattributed variations can be found, as in Wikipedia's article on coverture) is that legally a husband and wife were one person—and that person was the husband.

The practice of calling a woman "Mrs. Husband'sFirstname Husband'sLastname" is a reflection of this legal fiction. Divorced women regained their individual identity, and so were styled "Mrs. HerFirstname Ex-husband'sLastname". It was a common practice in the 19th and first half of the 20th century:

Google Ngram comparing "Mrs. John", "Mrs. Mary", and "Mrs. Smith" from 1600-2000. Data is very jaggy before 1800, probably due to small sample size. Mrs. John alternates between 0% in most years before 1750 with occasional small spikes, one as high as 0.00007% in 1720. From 1750-1840 it has a small but steady usage (below 0.00002%). It then begins a steady climb throughout the second half of the 1800s and first part of the 1900s, to a high of about 0.00018% around 1940, the highest usage of any term in this chart. From there it drops even more steadily and rapidly, to about 0.000017% in 2000 (less than a tenth of its peak usage six decades earlier). Mrs. Mary is fairly common throughout the early period, with spikes as high as 0.00016% in the late 1730s; from there it declines in fits and starts to a low of about 0.0033% around 1790. For the next few decades it climbs back up to almost 0.00008% before dropping back down to hover 0.00004% from the 1820s to the 1860s. It gradually climbs back up, and from 1890-1940 it bounces between 0.0001% and 0.000125, before declining steadily through the rest of the twentieth century. In 2000 it was at just under 0.00002%. Finally, Mrs. Smith is flat until 1711 then has a very small presence until 1760, when it spikes up to 0.000075%. Its usage for the next century is very spiky, dropping back down to less than a tenth that usage in 1875 and then rising and falling every decade or so, with a range between 0.00003% and 0.00006%. Beginning around 1840, the range shifts higher, bouncing between about 0.00006% and 0.00008% until 1880. It falls back below 0.00005% in 1890, and then generally climbs to a high of just over 0.0001% in 1838. It generally declines in use for several decades, and then appears to level out at around 0.00004% between the 1980s and the end of the graph in 2000, making it the most common term as of 2000.

Google Ngram comparing "Mrs. John", "Mrs. Mary",1 and "Mrs. Smith".

The Ngram suggests that the usage "Mrs. John X" came to ascension in Victorian times, and then dropped off rapidly post-WWII. However, you will still find it enshrined in some very formal etiquette advice, such as:

A widow2 is traditionally addressed as Mrs. John Jones, but if you feel the guest may not want to be addressed that way, it's completely okay to ask her how she prefers to be addressed. A divorced woman who has kept her married name should be addressed as you suggested -- Ms. Jane Johnson.
("Q&A: Invitations: Addressing One to a Widow or Divorcee?" TheKnot.com)

And it may also be used in less formal situations, either ironically or (as in the case of the Simpsons) for more straightforwardly comedic effect.


1 Note that some of the earliest examples of "Mrs. Mary X" may not refer to married women, as "Mrs." was sometimes used for unmarried women before the nineteenth century. For example, in Jonathan Swift's 1726 Gulliver's Travels we are told that the protagonist "married Mrs. Mary Burton,” second Daughter to Mr. Edmond Burton, Hosier".

2 Of course, a widow also regained her individual legal identity when her husband died; the "married" name was retained "as a courtesy". It's easier to find this tradition described for widows in modern time, however, as the high-stickler etiquette is more obvious for married women's envelopes—they are addressed "Mr. and Mrs. John Smith".

5

The form of address goes back to 1765 at least. The Scots Magazine (February 1765) includes examples of three forms of identifying a married woman by name:

BIRTHS.

Jan. 13. At his seat of Wishaw, Mrs. Hamilton, wife of Robert Hamilton of Wishaw, Esq; of a son and heir-apparent {xxvi. 55.}

...

[Feb.] 13. At Bristo house, near Edinburgh, Mrs. Charles Lockhart, of a daughter.

DEATHS.

...

[March] 7. At Musselburgh, Mrs Margaret Aikman, daughter of the deceased William Aikman of Cairney, Esq; advocate.

(On second thought, and in keeping with the point in 1006a's excellent answer about unmarried women sometimes being referred to as "Mrs." prior to the nineteenth century, I strongly suspect that Mrs. Margaret Aikman was actually Miss Margaret Aikman, which would explain why she had the same surname as her father.)

The form "Mr. and Mrs. [husband's first and last name]" appears to have caught on somewhat later—perhaps as late as the middle of the nineteenth century. An example from The Music World (December 14, 1850) mentions, among the persons who "were also honoured with invitations to witness the dramatic representation" at Windsor Castle, "Mr. and Mrs. Henry Seymour and Miss Seymour."

These days, the "Mr. and Mrs. [husband's first and last name]" form seems to survive most commonly in donor lists. In contrast, instances of "Mrs. [husband's first and last name]" uncoupled from "Mr. and" seem to be quite rare (in Google Books search results anyway), although the form is not quite extinct, as this example from 2001 involving Mrs. William E. Massey, Jr., indicates. My grandmother (born in Ontario but a resident of Texas for more than seventy years) consistently identified herself in formal correspondence as "Mrs. [husband's first and last name]" as late as the 1980s—thirty years after her husband died.

2

This style was still common in the final decades of the last century. My first wife (divorced 1996) was formally Mrs Philip Cole, and in pre-internet days I addressed letters to her while I was away as "Mrs Philip Cole". of course, in ordinary discourse, interlocutors called her by her own first name, or Mrs Cole

This style was considered correct and formal, and a polite acknowledgement of a ladies married status. A women's first name was private and it was considered impertenant if someone who was not family or friend made use of it uninvited - like the difference in German between "du" and "Sie". It was by no means an indicator of inferiority, although modern sensibilities may consider it so

  • your answer would be more convincing if you included references, especially (in my mind) backing up the statements of the second paragraph... namely that a woman's first name was meant to be "private" and "it was considered impertinent...uninvited." – AmE speaker Sep 23 '18 at 5:48
2

Referring to a married woman by using her husband's name is still practised even in the 21st century by organisations that pride themselves on maintaining "tradition". The All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club (the official name for the host of the Wimbledon tennis championships) is a good example.

Until very recently (at least 2012), the AELTCC website used to have a "champions' board" that listed the Ladies' [not the modern term "Women's - a further insistence on tradition] Singles winners. Those who were unmarried were listed as "Miss Given-Initials Family-Name", while those few who were married were listed as "Mrs Husband's-Given-Initials Husband's-Family-Name".

The website has since been updated and the old champion's board has been replaced by a modernised Draws Archive showing the results for each match in a (selectable) year. Nonetheless, the traditional practice of listing a married woman under her husband's name has been maintained.

For example, the updated Draws Archive still shows the winner of the 1980 Ladies' Singles as "J.M. Lloyd" - i.e. John Lloyd, the husband of Chris Evert Lloyd (her legal name at the time). Evert defeated another married woman, Evonne Goolagong Cawley, who is listed under the name of her then husband: R.A. Cawley (i.e. Roger Cawley).

Further evidence of the AELTCC's practice is given in Wikipedia's entry for Goolagong Cawley, which notes that Goolagong married Cawley just prior to competing in the 1975 women's doubles tournament:

She continued in the doubles tournament, losing two days later in the final partnering with Peggy Michel. As the draw had already taken place prior to the marriage ceremony, Wimbledon was unable to record her entry as Mrs. R.A. Cawley in the official draw sheet until the second round.

-5

As the comments have suggested, you are mixing some things up.

To refer to "Mrs. Homer Simpson" when her name is Marge is not and never has been culturally appropriate. I do not watch "The Simpsons," but if Apu referred to her that way, then it was a way of saying that Apu did not quite get American English and culture and perhaps of mocking what was a standard form for addressing a married couple.

What was culturally common, at least until a few decades ago, was to refer to a married couple as "Mr. and Mrs. Homer Simpson" meaning "Mr. Homer Simpson and Mrs. Marge Simpson."

EDIT: I notice that I was wrong about the use of Mrs. Husband's First Name Husband's Last Name. I shall not fix the post because that would remove all context from the helpful comments received.

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    I believe this answer refers to American English and culture, in which case it would be helpful to make that explicit, perhaps by adding [tag:american-english] at the top, or some other obvious way. British English and culture (which is referenced in the question) is rather different. – Andrew Leach Sep 26 '17 at 15:58
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    DV because this is simply not true. I can find hundreds or thousands of examples from old US newspapers where the wife was referred to as Mrs. HisGivenName HisSurname. My examples would be from the 1920s-1940s because that's the period I've been studying, but I'm sure there are examples from before and after that time frame. – shoover Sep 26 '17 at 16:06
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    Yes, "Mrs John Smith" was the only strictly correct way to refer to a married woman for a long while ("Mrs Jane Smith" being either widowed or divorced) . It is uncommon now, but still exists in rarefied aristocratic/ diplomatic circles. – TimLymington Sep 26 '17 at 16:08
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    I don't think "is not and never has been culturally appropriate" is correct. Check out the first Peanuts comic linked in the "Matrimonial musings" section on the following page: fivecentsplease.org/dpb/samegag.html "In the January 26, 1953, strip, Violet contemplates a possible future life as Mrs. Charlie Brown". There's an interesting contrast with a later strip with a similar punchline: "Quite a few years later, on October 2, 1963, [...] Sally plays the same theoretical game after meeting 5, by picturing herself as 'Mrs. Sally 95472.' " Also, see the posts I linked to above – sumelic Sep 26 '17 at 16:22
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    There is a very famous line from the very American movie A Star is Born (1937): "Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine." The star was asserting her identity as a married woman in tragic circumstances. The film was remade in 1954 with Judy Garland in the starring role and the same final line. It was remade again in 1976, starring Barbra Streisand; that version very intentionally dropped the line. There is another remake coming out next year starring Lady Gaga; it will be interesting to see whether it makes a nod at this line or not. – 1006a Sep 26 '17 at 17:27

protected by tchrist Apr 21 at 2:33

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