Language lessons revive question about the term ‘ombudsman’

By Melissa Coade

May 19, 2021

letter o
(Image: Adobe/antishock)

Australian bureaucrats were battling over whether the word ‘ombudsman’ was sexist in the ‘80s. Some 30 years later, we revisit the debate. 

The important work of Australia’s various ombuds frequently floats to the top of The Mandarin’s news feed, so our editorial style to drop ‘man’ from the word became known to me very early in this job. In keeping with modern reforms to make our writing gender neutral (think of the phasing out of references like ‘airman’, ‘policeman’ or ‘chairman’), it seemed like a rather innocuous preference that I didn’t think twice about. Besides, several women hold the mantle across Australia.

Turns out the question of whether the ‘man’ in ombudsman should be retained for style reasons was a controversy of the late ‘80s, when an updated commonwealth style manual suggested that the word was sexist. Dennis Pearce, the Commonwealth title-holder of the day, wrote to the Secretary of the Department of Administrative Services to advise him that, contrary to the assertion of the new style manual, the origin of the word ‘ombudsman’ was Swedish and therefore the ‘man’ suffix could not be interpreted as sexist.

The origin of the word ‘ombudsman’ is found in Old Norse language, ‘umbuds man’, which means representative. The first preserved use of the term can be tracked to Swedish records from 1552, and variations of it are also found in other Scandanavian languages such as Icelandic, Norwegian and Danish.

Furthermore the title of ‘ombudsman’ was one designated by an act of parliament, Pearce argued, meaning it should be preserved in light of the fact it was a prescribed title. The office faced enough difficulty familiarising the public with the word ‘ombudsman’, he said, so there was no need to further convolute the issue and adopt ‘meaningless or inaccurate variations, which also departed from international usage’.

Pearce published his letter in the 1988-89 annual report for his agency and then, when the office got its own website, a more prominent explanation about the word and its history was better publicised. The secretary assured Pearce that the reference would be deleted from future editions of the style manual and the issue has not really been revisited since.

According to a book marking 40 years of the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman in 2017, several Australian women have served as the federal leader of the agency — Philippa Smith was the first woman who sat in the role for five years, and in the subsequent years other leading women have held the role across the states and territories using the widely accepted plural form of the role: ‘ombudsmen’.

The Mandarin understands the incumbent commonwealth ombud, Michael Manthorpe, accepts that editorial preference varies but he tends to stick with the view that since the title is one that has been mandated by legislation, it should be published as it was intended: ‘ombudsman’. 

The Mandarin‘s current style, however, is that because the suffix ‘man’ can be interpreted as gender-specific, we drop it and simply use ‘ombud’. The exception to that is when referring to the actual name of the office i.e. the Office of the Commonwealth Ombudsman.

On the assumption that government is unlikely to change the Ombudsman Act 1976 any time soon, it may be time to take the lead on reviving the debate about whether the word reflects our modern times. 



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