Missing Missy?

Dear Word Detective: I was wondering, are the various meanings of “miss” related? And if so, how? — Mint.

When I first read your question, I assumed that you were asking about “Miss” as a title or form of address for an unmarried (and otherwise untitled) woman, probably because I had just watched an episode of “Downton Abbey,” the PBS Victorian drama currently running on the TV. (Here in Ohio we call it “the TV.”) People on this show spend at least ten percent of each episode addressing each other as “M’ Lord,” “M’ Lady,” “Your Lordship,” “Lady Whatsis,” “Miss Ellie” and so on, so I guess all that verbal curtsying had worn a semantic rut in my mind. (“Miss Ellie” was actually on “Dallas,” but the two shows are actually quite similar if you substitute butlers for tennis instructors.) But now I’m guessing that you’re actually asking about “miss” in the “miss the target” or “I miss you” sense, which is an entirely different word.

“Miss” in the “unmarried woman” sense is interesting in its own right, of course, being a short form of “mistress” (much as “Mister” is a form of “master”). “Miss” first appeared in print in the early 17th century meaning “a kept woman” or “prostitute,” but by the early 18th century had come into general use as a perfectly proper form of address. Interestingly, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in 19th century “proper” families the eldest unmarried daughter in a family was indicated by “Miss” preceding the family name (“Miss Smith”), while for younger daughters the personal name was employed (“Miss Ethel Smith”). Live and learn.

Our modern English verb “to miss” is, as I said, a completely separate word. This “miss” first appeared in Old English (as “missan”) with the meaning of “to go wrong” or “to fail.” The root of this “miss,” which has close relatives in many European and Scandinavian languages, was the same Germanic root that gave us our modern prefix “mis,” which imparts the meaning of “badly,” “wrongly” or “unfavorably” (“misadventure,” “misdeed,” “mistake,” etc.).

The now-dominant sense of “to fail” (or “to omit”) underlies most of the wide variety of “misses” we encounter on a daily basis. We “miss” the target, whether a literal bullseye or a sales goal, we “miss” our chance for tickets to the big game, we “miss” (fail to “catch”) what the teacher said the test would cover, we “miss” the last bus home, and we “miss the boat” (originally a 19th century nautical idiom) on a hot investment and then fall prey to an unscrupulous broker who “never misses a trick” and sells us shares in something called Goggle.

The sense of “miss” that doesn’t really seem to fit with “fail” or “omit” is “to be without, to lack, to want” or the uniquely sentient sense of “to notice with regret the absence or loss of; to feel the lack of” (OED). (After all, one inanimate object, e.g., an asteroid, can “miss,” fail to hit, Earth, but it doesn’t spend the next few eons pining for another chance. We hope.)

This sense of “miss” first appeared in the 13th century with the meaning of “to notice the absence or loss of; to perceive that (a person or thing) is not in the expected or accustomed place” (OED), as if one’s gaze, directed at a thing or person usually there, had “missed” its target. This sense subsequently developed the meaning of “to be without” or “to lack or need,” as a coat “missing” from a rack or a wagon “missing” a wheel. The specific sense of “to miss” meaning “to notice with regret the absence of” (“I shall miss Violet with her bonny smile,” 1915) first appeared in the 14th century and today is so established as a statement of emotion that it’s difficult to connect it with “to miss” in the “fail to catch a train” or “fail to see a particular movie” senses. But they are all the same word.

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