Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Election Day Special: Are Senators "Congressmen"?

In learning about the Constitution in my American history class in junior high, we learned about the Framers, checks and balances, three branches of government, and all the rest. We learned about the bicameral legislature, i.e., the two chambers of the United States Congress: the House of Representatives and the Senate. But after learning all that, I wondered: Where did congressmen fit into the picture with all these representatives and senators? I'd seen campaign signs referring to "Congressman So-and-so"; I'd heard encouragements to "write your congressman!"; who were these congressmen?

My father explained that congressman meant any member of Congress, whether senator or representative, but that in actuality, just about everyone used it only to refer to members of the House of Representatives. He was right — at least about the fact that in common usage, congressman usually refers to a representative. But there's disagreement over whether it ever can — or ever could — refer to a senator.

A February 2003 thread in the alt.usage.english forum is informative. Several viewpoints emerged in the discussion. One is that congressman can indeed refer to a senator. A participant named Adam Maass quoted a website with an example of congressman including both senators and representatives: "Go to the Senate and the House of Representatives, and use the locator to find each of your congressmen." This, by the way, is also the view taken by the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives the definition, "A member of Congress (in U.S.)," and the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, which elaborates "a member of a congress, esp. of the U.S. House of Representatives."

A more nuanced view, posted by Mike Oliver, is that although the plural congressmen can include senators, as it did in Maass's example, the singular congressman will always refer to a representative, "except in the rather unlikely case that you know he's in one of the houses but you don't know which."

Balancing out these viewpoints is the claim that congressman never refers to senators, defended vigorously and increasingly caustically by Bob Lieblich. His first contribution:

Just to be absolutely clear, no one with a sound understanding of American English usage could hear "Congressman Jones" and think for a moment that Jones is a Senator.

When Adam Maass responded, "Nevertheless, Senator Jones is a congressman. (Or congressperson)," Lieblich fired right back:

If that's what you want to think, you go right ahead. But if you walked up to Barbara Boxer and said, "Hello, Congressperson Boxer," she'd probably wonder what's wrong with you.

Even acknowledging the utility of having a term that refers to any member of Congress, Lieblich maintains that congressman (or -person) simply can't do it: "There is no really good term for Senators and Congresspersons combined — 'elected representatives' ... is probably the best of a poor lot."

So which is the innovation: the semantic narrowing of congressman to just representatives, or the semantic broadening to include senators? The earliest attestation for congressman in the OED is from 1780 (predating the U.S. Constitution by nine years, though coming after the existence of the First and Second Continental Congresses, as well as various colonial and then state legislative houses that were called congresses). Joel Berson, in a message posted to the American Dialect Society mailing list, antedated congressman by three years, finding a 1777 attestation in a Boston newspaper. (The ADS thread begins here.) Boston had a bicameral legislature at the time, and though it's not clear in the passage whether congressman refers to members of only one house, elsewhere in the article it's clear that Congress refers only to the lower house of the Massachusetts legislature.

Congressman does not appear in the Constitution or the Federalist Papers. In searching the Early American Newspapers database for post-1789 attestations of congressman/-men, Berson found examples of the term used to refer to senators and representatives collectively, but also got the impression that "...'Congress-man' was sometimes used, perhaps increasingly gradually during the 1790s, to refer only to a member of the lower house."

The semantic narrowing was probably inevitable, because of a process known as "Q-based narrowing." Yale linguist Larry Horn coined this term, with Q referring to a principle (first proposed by Paul Grice) known as the Maxim of Quantity. To obey this principle, speakers give as much information as they can truthfully give (while obeying the countervailing Maxim of Relevance by not giving useless details).

Q-based narrowing occurs when there are two words, one of them a "hyponym" (more specific term) of the other. For example, consider rectangle and square. Under its geometric definition, a rectangle could have four sides of equal length. All that is required is for opposing sides have the same length; nothing states that adjacent sides have to have different lengths. Thus, a square is just a special kind of rectangle. The Q-based narrowing comes in when a speaker refers to a rectangle, and the hearer reasons, "If they were talking about a square, they would have used the more informative, more specific word square in order to obey Quantity. Since they didn't, they're probably talking about a rectangle that isn't a square." In this way, the less specific term comes to mean (in this example) any right-angled, four-sided figure with opposing sides of equal length, and adjacent sides of different lengths.

Q-based narrowing can vary in strength. For example, few people will seriously claim that your thumb isn't a finger. More than a few (but not all) will argue that the term gay doesn't include lesbians. Quite a few (probably even a majority if we're talking non-mathematicians) will refuse to accept that rectangle could refer to a square. And as we've seen, people can insist quite stridently that congressman cannot refer to a senator.

However, senator and representative are both more specific than congressman, so why did it narrow to the representative meaning? One astute alt.usage.english poster, John Varela, perfectly described how the Q-based narrowing most likely went down, in a post in an earlier thread on the senator/congressman question:

Being a Senator is perceived as more prestigious than being a Representative. I speculate, therefore, that the Senators would insist on being called "Senator" while the Representatives didn't care.

Awareness of the narrowing of congressman seems to have begun in the late 1800s. One of the OED attestations is such a complaint from 1888: "The term 'Congressman' is commonly used to describe a member of the House of Representatives, though of course it ought to include senators also." In a message to the ADS mailing list, Garson O'Toole quoted passages from that era, including on the one hand careful explanations of how congressman refers to any member of Congress (and perhaps complaints about its ill-founded restriction to representatives); and on the other, definitions that blithely equate congressmen and representatives.

These days, the restriction of congressman to representatives even affects the source word Congress. In addition to signs for incumbent candidates saying "Congressman Jones," I see signs for challengers saying, "Smith for Congress," and know Smith isn't running for the Senate. Ed Williams on alt.usage.english chuckled over sometimes seeing references to "Congress and the Senate." The fact that we still have so much occasion to refer to Congress as a whole is probably the only thing that has saved Congress from becoming as firmly and thoroughly narrowed as congressman. And┬ájust think: there could have been a different kind of narrowing of its meaning — given the existence of the phrase sexual congress, the word congress could easily have gone the way of intercourse.


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Neal Whitman blogs at Literal-Minded, where he writes about linguistics in everyday life from the point of view of a husband and father. He taught English as a second language while earning his degree at Ohio State University; has published articles in Language, Journal of Linguistics, and other publications; and writes occasional scripts for the podcast "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." Click here to read more articles by Neal Whitman.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday November 2nd 2010, 9:34 AM
Comment by: Wood F.
Great article! I have wondered about this question. Appropriate for today's post!
Tuesday November 2nd 2010, 12:37 PM
Comment by: noblsavaj (San Antonio, TX)
My Senator is a Congressperson. End of story.
Tuesday November 2nd 2010, 2:10 PM
Comment by: Carolyn Russell
Congressional Representative. Or Congresswoman or Congressman when followed by the persons's name:
Congresswoman Alice. Congressman Jack. But never a generic reference to Congressmen. Please!
Tuesday November 2nd 2010, 6:24 PM
Comment by: loretta T. (Pompano Beach, FL)
Thanks for the article, this is something needed. there are many citizens of this country and don't understand or knows the meaning of THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVE
Wednesday November 3rd 2010, 2:29 PM
Comment by: Bruce H. (Arlington, VA)
Common usage makes the rule. If you call a Senator "Congressman" or call a Congressman "Senator" he or she (or his or her assistant) will correct you. I know (live and work in DC and on Capitol Hill most of my pro life) through experience.
Thursday November 4th 2010, 4:54 PM
Comment by: Janet M.
There are three branches of government. Executive, Legislative, and Judicial. The Congress (legislative), is made up of the House and the Senate. They are legislators. It isn't incorrect to refer to a senator as a congredssman, it just does not please the said senator.

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