Daily Archives: May 2, 2018


I’ll assume you’re familiar with the word ombudsman, which refers to a person who arbitrates complaints for a newspaper, government agency, or similar organization. It comes from Swedish, where it’s been a word for a good long time, descended from Old Swedish umboþ ‘commission, order’ plus man. English borrowed it in the late 1800s.

In the late 1800s, and for a while after, every ombudsman was in fact a man. But by the later 20th century there were ombuds…women? But it seems a bit clunky to have to specify the sex of the ombuds…person? But, then, why say man, woman, or person at all? We already resolved this neatly with chair, which replaces chairman, chairwomanchairperson with a nice bit of metonymy (like using crown or state to refer to government things). And whereas chair is a thing of its own and so in some contexts may be ambiguous, there is no ambiguity if we say ombud. It’s clearly a short form of ombudsman (or whatever). K?

Question, though. If we take man off ombudsman, that makes it ombuds, not ombud. But then what’s the plural? Ombudses? But if we make it ombud, which can pluralize to ombuds if you ever need to, where’s the original s? But the in the original is a genitive, not a plural; it allows ombud (or in the original umboþ) to modify man.

But do we have a real basis for changing ombudsman in the first place? This question has come up on various occasions, and various people have had various things to say about it. A colleague pointed me to a briefing paper from the Northern Ireland Assembly that quoted a couple of people weighing in on it as certain kinds of people will:

Put simply, the word ‘Ombudsman’ is not an English word: it is Swedish. It does not therefore lend itself to conversion to the ‘ombudsperson’ or ‘ombudswoman’ that the manual suggests… it makes it meaningless because such suffixes are not recognised as Swedish’.

“Ombudsmand”, a Scandinavian word, has the etymological meaning a “man who is asked for something”, ie, help or redress. Washington has shorn the title down to a meaningless “ask-for”.

There are… problems, let’s put it nicely (why?)… with these objections. Ombudsman, borrowed into English, is no longer a Swedish word. If I call either of the persons who made this objection ignoramus, I’m not saying in Latin “we don’t know,” which is what Latin ignoramus means; I’m saying in English a noun that describes the person as pointedly ignorant. If I see him in a restaurant and ask the maitre d’ to show the ignoramus out, he can object all he wants that maitre d’ is meaningless because it just means ‘master of’ (with the original hotel deleted), but he’s still going to find his butt (and the rest of him) on the street, hopping the next bus. And even though bus is short for Latin omnibus, which is a dative Latin plural of the adjective omnia ‘all’, and even though the bus is part of the inflectional ending and not the root, the short form bus is not meaningless for us. We know exactly what it means in English, regardless of what a Latin speaker might have thought.

But what about the objection that in Swedish man doesn’t mean ‘man’? We don’t change human to huperson or hu, after all. But, then, we don’t say “hu man” as though it’s another kind of man; we say it as though it’s an adjective derived with the suffix –an from hume. (In fact, that’s pretty close; it’s from Latin humanus, derived from homo, which is indeed gender-neutral; ‘man’ is vir.) Well, what is the word for ‘man’ in Swedish? Why, it’s man. Man is also the word for ‘husband’, and it is not the word for ‘woman’ (that’s kvinna) or ‘wife’ (fru). Swedish for ombudsman is ombudsman, using that same man; the spelling ombudsmand comes from Danish (there is no language called Scandinavian; the several Scandinavian languages do have differences in their words). Swedish man is directly related to English man – by which I mean it’s the same word used in the same way in a not-that-distantly-related language. The fact that man is used broadly in Swedish the way it used to be used broadly in English does not mean it’s gender-neutral; it means Swedish is still masculine-normative in this regard.

So we borrowed ombudsman into English, which really means we borrowed ombud(s) and already had man. And when we hear it, we hear the man at the end, and it is masculine-normative. If it weren’t really from man, there would be a different argument to make – should we change a word just because it sounds like something problematic?* But it is from man. It is accurately read as English man and is received and dealt with as such.

Editors know that if there’s a tricky phrasing, one that leads to syntactic vexation, the best solution is to rephrase. And if there’s a turn of phrase that might upset some people, you’re best rewording if you can. An important tool in the editor’s toolkit is a nice sharp sword for cutting Gordian knots. Ombudsman is a place to use that sword. Slice true and clean and you get ombud and ombuds. And if anyone objects too strenuously, the sword is still sharp; let them look to it. Any complaints can be addressed to the ombud.


*That’s a fun debate, but if you want to cut to the chase, we already do that in various ways. Newscasters say harassment and Uranus in ways that avoid saying ass and anus per se, and the British pronunciation of bomb is no longer identical to that of bum, as it once was. There are other examples I probably don’t need to list of words that sound like even less acceptable words; though unrelated, they’re often avoided, because why bring unpleasant things to mind? Like it or not, we do it, because we can hear it.