Ombudsbusiness

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Stanford offices that provide services of one kind or another e-mail every so often to tell faculty what they can offer us. So a little while back I got a message from the Stanford Ombuds Office, and recognized the usage as one I'd seen before but didn't find entirely natural. Well, the world (or at least part of it) has shifted, and it turns out that the standard dictionaries haven't caught up.

The first thing I discovered is that American educational and research institutions have shifted heavily to Ombuds Office rather than Ombudsman's Office as the name of the program in question. Just the first two pages of a Google web search on {"Ombuds Office"} got me the following institutions (in no particular order):

Princeton, Hampshire College, Berkeley, Kansas, North Carolina, UC San Diego, Stanford, Michigan, Colorado – Denver, MIT, Harvard Med., UMass Amherst, Columbia, Los Alamos National Labs, Stony Brook, Wisconsin Med., M. D. Anderson Cancer Center

The people who do this sort of work in an academic setting in the United States clearly have come to a consensus (by some combination of diffusion and group decision — there are professional organizations, after all; see below) on what their offices are called. That, of course, is their prerogative, and it would be hard for people to mistake the meaning of the term (unless they are dead set on failing to understand).

[Outside of academic settings, Ombudsman's Office and the like continues to reign. As for the following cases (a few chosen from a much larger sample):

Industrial Commission of Arizona, Florida Office of the Condominium Ombudsman, Office of Local Government Ombudsmen for England, EPA National Ombudsman's Office, U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service, Connecticut Dept. of Children and Families, King County (WA), United Nations, New South Wales police, state of Alaska, state of Nevada

Ombuds looks like mostly an American academic thing.]

Next I looked at the way these sites referred to the people who worked in these offices. There were some references to an ombudsperson, some to an ombud, and a lot to an ombuds. (Ok, I still find this last one on the bizarre side, but still interpretable. If it persists, I'm sure that after a decade or so it will seem unremarkable.)

What about plurals? Here's Patrick Robardet (of the Office of the Ombudsman for Quebec) on "Ombudsing: Reflections on Role and Style" (the verb ombuds is a nice bonus) illustrating some of the possibilities:

All modern ombudsmen- or, to avoid sexism, "ombudspersons" or "ombudses" -derive from this one.

There are today a great many ombudses and (ombuds derivatives) around the world. Current membership in the International Ombudsman Institute includes over 125 government ombuds offices in more than 85 countries. There are also national or regional associations of government ombudses (such as the United States Ombudsman Association), of university and college ombudses (such as the University and College Ombudsman Association in the US), and of private-sector ombudses for consumer products, banking, health care, and so on.

(Ombudsmans is also attested as the plural.)

Now, on to a look at a few dictionaries.

NOAD2 has sex-neutral ombudsman (plural ombudsmen) and ombudsperson, the latter defined as 'a person acting as an ombudsman', but no other ombudswords.

AHD4 has sex-neutral ombudsperson, specifically male ombudsman, and specifically female ombudswoman. But no ombud(s).

The OED (draft revision of December 2008) also has three ombudsentries: the original ombudsman, with no sex specified, specifically female ombudswoman, and ombudsperson (marked as "of either sex"). This probably comes closest to capturing current majority usage. It's close to NOAD2's account, except for the inclusion of innovative ombudswoman.

Clearly, usage varies and is in flux.

(Please don't write me to complain about the word ombudswoman (and similar -woman words) or about the sexual connotation of ombudsman (and similar -man words, and man itself) or about the search for transparently sex-neutral terms. Such topics have been hashed out in many places, including recently on Language Log (here) and on my blog (here).)

 

 

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