The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

"My secretary will fax you the details"

In a recent social media post, ELT writer Katherine Bilsborough was bemoaning the appallingly sexist images that came up when she was searching for secretary on a stock image site. I won't share the images, but I'm sure you can imagine the kind of thing. The post prompted a lot of equally appalled reactions about the actual images, but there were also a couple of comments about whether we even use the word secretary anymore anyway. Which, of course, got me thinking and sent me off to check ...

My immediate reaction and that of several people I spoke to was that secretary, to describe someone who does an admin job, has been replaced as a job title nowadays by 'assistant' of some kind - admin assistant, personal assistant, executive assistant. A bit of googling very quickly turned up several articles to back up my hunch. But what do the stats say?

There is some evidence that usage of the word secretary has fallen off slightly since about the 1980s.

Graph from Google Ngram viewer showing a slight decline in use of the word secretary between1970 and 2008
Source: Google Ngram viewer

graph showing a slight decline in the trend for the word secretary between 1958 and 2008
Source: Collins Dictionary online

It's difficult to pin down stats though because it's hard to disentangle from its other senses referring to a. political positions (Secretary of State, Home Secretary, press secretary, etc.) and b. formal positions in the hierarchy of certain organizations (Secretary General of the UN, General Secretary of a trade union, club/company secretary, etc.). I looked across several corpora though and took a random sample of corpus lines to scan through. In each case, for recent corpus data, there were a tiny number of cites that referred to the admin assistant sense (less than 5 per 100 cites). Comparing that to the old BNC (from the 1980s and 90s), I came up with around 18 in 100. Not rigorous research but still a fairly clear decline.

So, we're all agreed that secretary is probably as dated as typist or air stewardess. Which begs the question, why was an ELT materials writer looking to illustrate it? Answer: because it's on a (newly updated!) Cambridge exams vocabulary list ... Cue a flurry of further checking ... and I was slightly shocked to find:
  • it appears on all the major publishers' word lists - A2 on EVP and (the brand new!) Oxford 3000 and B1 on the Pearson GSE
  • it appears in all the major UK learner's dictionaries (Oxford, Cambridge, Collins COBUILD, Macmillan and Longman) without any kind of label or usage note to flag that it's old-fashioned - unlike stewardess which is labelled as 'old-fashioned' in all but one of them. I won't name and shame the dictionary with the example sentence of the title.

I found this particularly disappointing because I know just how aware lexicographers are of trying to keep on top of this kind of thing. I know how much work goes on to try and weed out dated entries and examples from dictionaries. And with most ELT lexicographers being female, we're especially sensitive to anything that smacks of sexism. It seems that this one has just slipped through the gaps.

So, I'm calling on all those dictionary publishers to at least take a look and reconsider your entries and also to relook at your word lists. I know this kind of change can't necessarily always happen overnight, but can you at least promise to check it for your next editions?

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Blogger Unknown said...

Diana Lea, Managing Editor in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press and the editor responsible for Oxford Learner’s Word Lists writes:
Thank you for this interesting post, Julie. I don’t think there is any question that the use of the word secretary has changed over the last two or three decades. Overall, however, it remains a very frequent word, within the top 2,000 most frequent words in the Oxford English Corpus and the top 3,000 in a corpus of Oxford ELT coursebooks. It fulfils the criteria of frequency and relevance for inclusion in the Oxford 3000 list of the most important words to learn in English.
For me, the question is not whether to teach this word to learners of English, but what to teach them about it and when. It has several different but related meanings. Should we teach the other main meanings – the ‘official of a club or organization’ (General Secretary) or the political position (Secretary of State) before the admin assistant meaning? Both are more frequent in a general corpus, but learners are still more likely to encounter the root meaning first. This may be partly because many coursebooks still introduce secretary as one of a list of basic jobs taught to beginners. Looking at some examples from low-level coursebooks, there are some that do strike me as old-fashioned:
I haven’t got a secretary or a company car, but maybe next year … (‘personal assistant’ would be more appropriate here)
But some I find perfectly acceptable:
Q: Are you a teacher at our school? A: No, I’m not. I’m a secretary at your school.
(In the context of schools, secretary does not appear to be old-fashioned, possibly because assistant generally has a different meaning in the school context, as in teaching assistant.)
You are absolutely right, however, to call out all the learners’ dictionaries for not giving any indication that the use of this term may be marked. But it is not simply a case of slapping on an old-fashioned label, as with stewardess. As used for a general office admin assistant, it is becoming old-fashioned; but in more specialized roles, such as legal secretary or press secretary, it still appears to be the current term. I have compiled a note to explain these points, which will be added to the entry for secretary in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary online. Thank you once again for calling our attention to an important change in the language.

10:42 am  
Blogger The Toblerone Twins said...

Thanks so much for taking the time to look into this and to reply here too.
As I said in my post, my initial look at the word certainly wasn't a thorough one, so great that you've looked into it in more detail. I also agree that an 'old-fashioned' label is probably a bit heavy-handed at this stage. As you point out, 'secretary' does seem to still be used for admin roles in some contexts (although I wonder if that's on its way out too?), so a usage label is probably a better solution.
As for its use in materials, that's probably where I worry more. Should we really be teaching it to learners as a neutral term alongside other jobs vocabulary? And doesn't it become a bit circular - if it appears on word lists, then writers are pushed to include it in materials and it keeps getting taught. I guess at least if there's a dictionary usage note to point to, then writers have a better case to argue to their editors if it strikes them as not quite right for a context.

9:18 am  

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