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.
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.