Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Senators, Representatives, and Congressmen

Posted by Neal on November 2, 2010

Over at Visual Thesaurus, I have a column about how and when congressman, which on its face would seem to be synonymous with member of Congress, came to refer to members of the House of Representatives to the near-exclusion of senators. I was reminded of it a few weeks ago when I heard someone on NPR talk about a low-population Western state’s “lone congressman“. Wait — the fewest congressmen (or congresswomen) any state should have is three, right? Two senators and one representative. As is often the case, it turns out that this usage been going on for a long time, in this case maybe even for as long as there has been a U.S. Congress, since the word congressman predates it.

But these days, congressman is even less appropriate than it was a hundred years ago, since now there are women in the House (not to mention the Senate). So the feminine equivalent congresswoman has been created, and to refer to either congressmen and congresswomen, the supremely awkward congressperson (first citation in OED, 1972). This word should never have been created. (Note: I’m not taking the untenable position that it’s not a word. But I still say it was stupid to create it.) If you want to talk about a representative, why not just say “representative”? Or, if you want a word that can refer to either a senator or a representative, member of Congress will do the job less awkwardly, and without the confusion that’s bound to occur when people interpret congressperson to mean “representative”. And what about more than one congressperson? Congresspersons? Congresspeople?

In the VT column, I attributed the constrained meaning to Q-based narrowing, which I’ve also talked about in these posts. However, representative also has semantic and phonetic factors working against it. On the semantic side, congressman/-woman does have an advantage over representative: It refers to a member of Congress, as opposed to some other kind of representative. Anyone who represents someone is a representative, but only a representative in Congress is a congressman/-woman.

Phonetically, representative is a troublesome word because it has an [r] in a consonant cluster beginning with a bilabial stop, i.e. [p]. Furthermore, this [pr] cluster is at the beginning of an unstressed syllable, and these circumstances almost guarantee difficulty in pronunciation. Look at what’s happened to Feb(r)uary, p(r)erogative, and lib(r)ary. (Nancy Hall at California State University at Long Beach has done some research on this “short-distance r-dissimilation,” but it’s not published yet. But if you’re curious, you could take a look at some of her other work in progress, on long-distance R-dissimilation, in words like pa(r)ticular and gove(r)nor.) There’s also the fact that representative has five syllables to congressman‘s three, or congresswoman/-person‘s four. Finally, there’s the decision you have to make when pronouncing the nt in the middle. Do you do a nasalized flap (scroll down), or carefully pronounce the [nt]?

In the course of my research for the VT column, I also found that usage of congressman/-woman and representative varies by region. In one post to the alt.usage.english newsgroup, Ed Williams wrote:

I’ve found that the term “congressman” can refer to either a Representative or a Senator depending on the local parlance of different areas in the US. Back in New England where I grew up, for some reason we always talked about “congressmen and senators.” When I lived near Wasington, DC, you tended to hear people refer to the Representatives as just that. Out here in the western US, everyone seems to speak just of “congressmen” in the broad term. What’s odd around here, however, is that when you hear people addressing the politicians directly, you hear “Mr or Ms So and So” for Representatives and “Senator” for Senators. Different traditions, I suppose. Personally, I find using the term “Representative” all the time to be a little too officious and that “congressman” (or “-woman”) just feels a little more neighborly.

There were two threads on this topic on alt.usage.english. The Williams post was in the earlier, shorter, and more even-toned thread. The later, much, much longer, and at times rather heated thread was entertaining because of the strident posts by a guy named Bob Lieblich, who insisted that not only was congressman/-woman used exclusively to refer to members of the House, but that even the plural congressmen/-women only referred to representatives, never to a mixed crowd from both houses, no exceptions. Here’s a sampling:

i don’t know what to say. Where I am (see below), “Congressman/woman/person” means someone in the House — period. It does not mean or include “senator” — ever. I live three miles or so from where these people hang out (when they’re not fund-raising), and maybe out there in Podunk or Peoria there is someone who, hearing the word “Congressmen” or the phrase “Members of Congress,” allows for the possibility that some senators are meant, but that’s not what the words mean where the people described by those words assemble.

Interesting: For Lieblich, even members of Congress doesn’t cover both houses. But continuing, when one participant wrote, “Neither Congressman nor Congressperson should be used as a title, Lieblich showed little patience:

Sorry, both are, by the very people to whom the title applies.

Can’t argue with the content. Upping the stakes, Lieblich wrote:

And here’s a dare: Find anything in the Congressional record that clearly uses “congressman” or “congressperson” to mean or include senators.

Okay, senators and congressfolk are not the final word on English usage. (Thank God.) But they use the labels for their positions the way I use those words, and until I am shown something (other than unsupported opinion) that indicates I am wrong, I’m going to keep insisting that I’m right.

Bob Lieblich
I am, you know

When one participant told Lieblich, “I can say: Senator Boxer is a congressperson,” Lieblich responded with this howler:

Well, of course you can. And any knowledgeable American speaker of English will wonder what you are trying to convey. Forgive my asking, but are you a knowledgeable American speaker of English? If so, what has led you to think that you can call a Senator a congressperson and have anyone understand what you are saying?

I guess it just goes to show that word meanings, like Constitutional rights, fade when they’re not exercised.

13 Responses to “Senators, Representatives, and Congressmen”

  1. Philip Whitman said

    I know that I have used Congressman to refer to both Senators and Representatives in the same breath (irrespective of whether any of them were women), and that is not an uncommon thing, as I have often heard other people do it too. It makes for brevity when you want to include members of both Houses with only one word. I was reminded of this when I opened a story I have been working on to post on my blog, and I immediately spotted this sentence that I wrote about a week ago: “I always said that every Congressman who voted for the 55-mph limit should be required to drive at 55 from Houston to Bakersfield, California.” On the other hand, when I am referring to an individual member of one of the Houses, or to a group of people all of whom are members of the same House, I say Senator(s) or Representative(s), as the case may be. That’s what I do, and I’m sticking to it.

  2. The Ridger said

    So only members of one house of Congress are congressmen/women/people/folk? That’s too silly to debate.

    • Philip Whitman said

      If I understood what you said, that’s not what I said. That is to say, you misunderstood what I was trying to say. That’s what I put in the “as the case may be” for.

      A member of either House of Congress is a Congressman/woman, etc., but if I were referring only to a Representative John Doe, I would normally say Representative Doe, and if I were referring only to a Senator Jane Brown, I would normally say Senator Brown. But both of them are members of Congress (in my example). Consequently, if I were a political reporter and I were writing about both of them, as well as possibly some other Senators and Representatives, whom I saw together at some recent news event, I might be inclined to say that I saw some Congressmen (and women) talking with one another at some news event.

      • Ran said

        I believe The Ridger was commenting on what the bits quoted from Bob Lieblich in the original post. (The e-mail system makes it look like every comment after yours is a reply to yours, but if you look at the indentation and nesting on the web-page, it’s a bit more clear that The Ridger was replying directly to the original post. The caveat being that the nesting only goes three levels deep, and after that the software decides for some reason to force comments back to the top level.)

      • Philip Whitman said

        Oh. Thanks, I didn’t realize that.

      • The Ridger said

        Indeed, I wasn’t replying to you – I agree with you.

  3. Ran said

    As you know, some words of the form X-person also form another gender-neutral compound X-Y, which is often much more common (“police officer”, “firefighter”, “mail carrier”). In this case that compound seems to be “Congress member”. It’s often even written as a single word; see“congressmembers”.

    By the way, I’ve also heard “congressmen and legislators”, which really threw me at first. As near as I could tell from context, “legislators” in that case referred to members of the state legislature (the Ohio General Assembly).

    • The Ridger said

      Ah! Assemblymen! I’d have been confused by “legislators” for them, too, though I suppose that’s what they’re called places that have, as Molly Ivins used to say, “a Lege”.

  4. Regardless, I think their all representatives. And congress is what you would call several of them. Instead of congresspeople. I think the correct way that to use congresspeople is when you would be referring to them in a bad way. For example, “These congresspeople are all alike.” “All congresspeople are dirty cock suckers.” Then it sounds better. And people know what you mean.

  5. Philip Whitman said

    I suppose. I don’t write that word very often, so I don’t really know.


    I think it’s very simple: Congress consists of the two houses, i.e. the house of representatives and the (house of the) senate…all those members are congressmen (without trying to be politically correct here) and the representatives feel inferior because of the sheer difference in the numbers of members of each house, which, I think, has to do with individual ego, so to feel more important representatives will call themselves congressmen as opposed to representatives, but the senators (for the same reason) will stick to “senator”.

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