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A few days ago, Geoff Pullum pondered the use of subject to mean "person" in police jargon ("One subject in the residence", 2/13/2009):

A police spokesperson from Buffalo speaking about yesterday's plane crash on BBC Radio 4 this morning said that in addition to all the people on the plane (no one survived) there was "one subject in the residence". The baffled Radio 4 presenter had to repeat back a translation into normal English.

This use of subject is certainly standard police practice, at least in the U.S., as a sample of police-blotter reports from Google News makes clear:

A Bend officer spotted someone on foot in the area and tried to contact the subject, who fled on foot in the area of Big Sky Park.
A subject wearing a black hat and white jacket had stolen a 30-pack case of Budweiser beer.
At 8:06 a.m., the Quay County Sheriff’s Department received several reports of a male subject walking with a baby along the westbound lane of Interstate-40, and it appeared that the subject’s vehicle had broken down. A Sheriff’s deputy advised that the subject’s vehicle was out of gas and the officer had taken gas to the vehicle.
At 12:35 p.m., a female reported subjects riding 4-wheelers recklessly on Quay Road AK.
At 6:59 p.m., a female reported there was a subject standing in the median on south First Street asking people for money.

Checking the OED suggests a medical origin for the usage:

e. A body used for anatomical examination or demonstration; a dead body intended for or undergoing dissection.

1710 Phil. Trans. XXVII. 71 In our Subject the Hairs are every where pretty long.
1729 Ibid. XXXVI. 167 This Subject..had her Lungs full of small Tubercles.

f. A person who presents himself for or undergoes medical or surgical treatment; hence, one who is affected with some disease.

1822-34 Good's Study Med. (ed. 4) III. 485 The subject was forty-five years of age, and had evinced a slight rhachitic tendency from infancy.
1859 Todd's Cycl. Anat. V. 178/2 Two of the subjects died after severe instrumental labour.
1898 H. BROWN Secret Gd. Health 91 Smoking helps the subject to rest.
1898 Allbutt's Syst. Med. V. 276 A broad line of dilated venules is often seen in emphysematous subjects.

The police use of subject is missing from the OED entry, suggesting that it's either American or recent or both. Curiously, the use of subject in general reports of human research is also missing, except for this curious residue of late-19th-century cultural preoccupations:

g. Psychical Research. A person upon whom an experiment is made.

1883 Proc. Soc. Psych. Research 18 July 251 A specific influence or effluence, passing from the operator to the ‘subject’.
1886 GURNEY, etc. Phantasms of Living I. 16 The ‘subject's’ hand seemed to obey the other person's will with almost the same directness as that person's own hand would have done.

Does this mean that psychical research was the only kind, in those days, that used the word subject to mean "person"? Or does it just reflect a bias in the OED's reading program?  These days, and for quite a few years in the past, pretty much every one of the hundreds of thousands of research reports involving "human subjects" will use the word in that way. Here's a small sample from recent BioMedCentral publications:

In the two-actor or "Joint" conditions the participants performed the task in an alternating fashion, meaning that when one subject performed the task (actor) the other observed (observer).
Recently, we studied the prevalence of bruxism in the general adult population using a custom-made color-stained plastic sheet, the BruxChecker, on the maxillary dentition overnight and found that occlusal contacts where the color was ground off were seen in the majority of subjects, indicating sleep bruxism.
Figure 1. PM involvement in a subject with RCA territorial infarction.
DNA samples were available in 371 subjects.
Variation in basal heat shock protein 70 is correlated to core temperature in human subjects.
To predict how attrition might bias the results, others have shown that subjects who participate after reminders are fairly similar to the non-responders.
44.5% of subjects reported current PA at six months post partum.
Each of these subjects were trained in the use of the monitor and given written instructions.


  1. Joe said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

    The usage of "subject" may have its medical origins through the legal usage of the latin "corpus" (as in "habeas corpus") refers to the "body of the prisoner" or accused. Just a thought.

  2. Peter Fraterdeus said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 1:19 pm

    Police usage of language in general, as military, and indeed, very closely, medical is depersonalizing. The law enforcement, military or medical points of view all share a desire to objectify the 'subjects' of their attentions.

    "Subject of Investigation" would be a possible origin for 'subject' in this context.
    Of course, one would think that 'object' would be more appropriate.


  3. Charles said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 1:20 pm

    To follow up on Joe, try googling "subject of a lawsuit" compared to "object of a lawsuit".

  4. Mark P said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 1:43 pm

    I think at least part of the reason it's used is to avoid a word implying guilt, like "perpetrator", mixed with an attempt to seem a disinterested observer of just the facts, ma'am.

  5. George said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

    Isn't "subject" used much like "citizen" in British English?

  6. rpsms said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 1:55 pm

    It seems like the least descriptive and therefore least misleading word to use, especially in a dynamic situation.

  7. David Eddyshaw said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 2:33 pm

    Like Mark P, I suspect the object of "subject" is to avoid "suspect".

  8. Mark Liberman said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 3:00 pm

    George: Isn't "subject" used much like "citizen" in British English?

    Yes, the OED's entry leads with "I. 1. a. One who is under the dominion of a monarch or reigning prince; one who owes allegiance to a government or ruling power, is subject to its laws, and enjoys its protection."

    But I very much doubt that the police-report use has much of a connection to this sense — a police "subject" need not be a citizen.

  9. mollymooly said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 3:07 pm

    George: Isn't "subject" used much like "citizen" in British English?

    According to Wikipedia, "British citizen" and "British subject" are 2 of the 6 categories of "British national".

  10. dr pepper said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

    What about "unsub"? Or is that the invention of tv writers?

  11. Bobbie said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

    "Subjec"t is asexual — Therefore, police reports do not have to describe a person as male or female, just as a subject.

    [(myl) The same is true of "person", "individual", and so on; and in any case, police reports often identify sex explicitly, via expressions like "male|female subject", thus eliminating gender-free advantage of "subject" over "man" or "woman". ]

  12. Tom said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

    Rather "subject" than "target"!

    But the word in this context is not used to mean "person" but to mean "subject of investigation" as another commenter pointed out. When a person in a police report (how were the "police-blotter" reports in the post sourced by the way?) is not the subject of investigation, they're not referred to as "the subject".

    "Person of interest" is another good one from the law enforcement world.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

    Tom: When a person in a police report … is not the subject of investigation, they're not referred to as "the subject".

    This doesn't seem to be true, at least with respect to police reports as reported in the newspapers (which are the only ones that I can easily see). Thus here:

    Police are investigating an altercation Monday between a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl on Atlee Avenue.

    "[Monday] between 12 and 3:45 p.m. two female juveniles were involved in an altercation," Sgt. Doug Stewart said. "The fight was reportedly over a male subject who was supposedly dating both the girls."

    The fight accelerated when the 14-year-old allegedly pulled out a knife and cut the 15-year-old’s mouth. The older teenager was taken to the Vaughan Regional Hospital were she received 10 stitches authorities said.

    As far as I can tell from the report, the "male subject" was not the subject of any police investigation, except in the indirect sense of being the casus belli, and seems not even to have been present at the fight.

  14. dr pepper said,

    February 18, 2009 @ 8:19 pm

    I hope someone warns the boy in question that if he initiates a breakup it better be over the phone.

  15. Wordoch said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 12:12 am

    It seems the (British) subjects from the OED haven't hacked their way through their admittedly gargantuan backlog of work to the 20th century use of subject as of yet.

  16. Saif said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 5:15 am

    Isn't "subject" used much like "citizen" in British English?

    We in Britain are in transition from being 'subjects' to becoming 'citizens'. We are for the moment British 'objects' , and so treated by OurGov…

  17. Ginger Yellow said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 9:04 am

    Interesting (and slightly creepy) to note the differential usage in those police reports of "a male subject" and "a female".

  18. Maureen said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 10:36 am

    "a FEmale SUBject" just doesn't sound all that good — it slows you down. On the other hand, "a MALE SUBject" sounds snappy. You can spit it out over the radio in a jiffy.

    When it comes to radio jargon, never underestimate the power of what sounds cool.

  19. ajay said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 11:49 am

    Isn't "subject" used much like "citizen" in British English?


    Interesting (and slightly creepy) to note the differential usage in those police reports of "a male subject" and "a female".

    There are no female subjects mentioned: both the females are only mentioned in the context of making the complaints, not in the context of being the subjects of complaints.

  20. Ginger Yellow said,

    February 19, 2009 @ 2:32 pm

    I thought about that angle, but a) the original "subject in the residence" wasn't a subject of complaints, and b) that doesn't make calling a woman/girl "a female" any less creepy.

  21. Robert said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 6:48 am

    From watching police camera shows, I have noticed that British police will usually refer to a house or any building as an "address". Not just to refer to the address, they refer to breaking down the door of an address, for instance.

  22. marie-lucie said,

    February 20, 2009 @ 7:46 am

    The words "subject", "male" and "female" avoid mention of other characteristics such as age. The "male subject" in the case of the two teen-aged girls could have been on the cusp of being considered a "boy" or a "man", a difference which might have become significant.

    that doesn't make calling a woman/girl "a female" any less creepy.

    In Jane Austen, a "female" is a common expression for a girl or woman.

  23. Nic C. said,

    February 21, 2009 @ 12:37 am

    In Canada it is standard police practice to use "subject" in the context of "subject of complaint". It conveys that someone called the police to report you did something, without actually implying any guilt or making any judgements, as opposed to the terms "accused" or "suspect".

    The other point I'd like to make is that the use of "subject" may have psychological value for the officer. Thinking about 40-50 "people" having died it a lot harder than thinking about 40-50 "subjects". Police see a lot of horrible things, speaking (and thinking) about them in a sort of third person theoretical helps with the coping.

  24. Readings Round-Up #5 – mutually occluded said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 11:30 am

    […] Language Log » Subjects "The police use of subject is missing from the OED entry, suggesting that it's either American or recent or both. Curiously, the use of subject in general reports of human research is also missing, except for this curious residue of late-19th-century cultural preoccupations […]" […]

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