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History Of A Deeply Complex Word: The Many Meanings Of 'Mistress'


The New York Times apologized this week for using the phrase slave mistress in an obituary about the late civil rights icon Julian Bond. It was in reference to Bond's great-grandmother who was a slave in Kentucky. We're joined now by Ben Zimmer, executive editor of vocabulary.com and a language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Ben, thanks for being here.

BEN ZIMMER: Thanks for having me.

VIGELAND: In the context of slavery, explain why the term mistress is so problematic.

ZIMMER: You might not find this in any dictionary definition of the word mistress, but when we hear that word, it implies certain things about a romantic or sexual relationship where we assume that the woman in this relationship has a level of consent, a level of commitment. And that obviously cannot be said in the context with slavery. The word itself is just layered with so many meanings that it becomes very hard to untangle all the different connotations sometimes.

VIGELAND: Well, let's talk about the etymology here. Has the word mistress always been a pejorative?

ZIMMER: Well, no. I mean, when it enters English, which happens in the 14th century - it comes in via French - it's basically just the feminine form of master. It's master with that E-S-S feminine ending on it. But by the 15th century, there's an evolution of the meaning, and we see that mistress starts getting used in romantic context to refer to a man's beloved or sweetheart. And then, by the early 17th century, we get the meaning that is so problematic in this situation referring to a woman in an illicit relationship with a married man.

VIGELAND: This word is still being used, as you note, in today even. And there has been some debate about whether it should be used at all in a modern sense, particularly in light of the question of whether there is a related word for men.

ZIMMER: That's a great point, and it's true that because of this evolution of the term mistress, the word master did not follow suit. We don't use master to mean the same thing for a man who is in an illicit relationship with a married woman. In fact, there really is no good term in English that has developed for this.

VIGELAND: So this is all taking a look at the word mistress itself. But just getting back to why we're talking about it at all, it seems like there really is no question that it should not ever be used in conjunction with the word slavery.

ZIMMER: You know, when I looked at the way that scholars describe these types of relationships - historians - you do occasionally find that phrase slave mistress. But there's another term other than mistress which very often gets used to describe a woman in that situation, and that's the word concubine. Now, mistress sounds archaic. Well, concubine sounds even more archaic. We don't go around using that word concubine in everyday conversation. But that would've been a safer choice for The Times, which pointed to the fact that in some ways using a word like mistress has the downside of possibly romanticizing a situation that deserves no romanticization at all.

VIGELAND: Ben Zimmer is the executive editor of vocabulary.com and the language columnist for The Wall Street Journal. Ben, thank you so much.

ZIMMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.