Why is "secretary" such a bad word?

In the office where I work, there is a phone list that was recently updated to reflect some changes in personnel. On the list, the woman who I had always considered the office secretary was listed as “secretary.” To my surprise, she became very angry at this, and demanded it be changed to “administrative assistant.” Why is the term “secretary” so offensive? No gender is associated with the word in any dictionary I found. And although it is by definition a subordinate* position (although the office would probably fall into chaos fairly quickly without her, she still works for us, not really with us), I see no reason why it would be considered a negative or derogatory title.

According to these dictionaries, the word means “person employed to handle correspondence, keep files, and do clerical work for another person or an organization.” That describes this person’s job perfectly. Is there some negative connotation I am unaware of? Why is “administrative assistant” better than “secretary”? It’s not like it changes the job description. And I have seen both males and females holding this position, regardless of its title. Is there some rational explanation for this? Or is this another example of political correctness? And what is it correcting? I’m really at a loss.

*Please don’t jump on me for this definition, for this is how it works in our company; she has no authority here, but rather works under our authority.

Just a WAG, but the word ‘secretary’ does have a lot of baggage tacked on to it. Ditzy females sitting around all day, working on their nails, making bad coffee only when they’re badgered into doing it, etc. ‘Administratvie Assistant’ sounds more professional to most people, and doesn’t (yet) have all the negative connotations that secretary does. Plus, some people think that the more words you have in your title, the more important you must be.

Although, I’m also at a loss as to why she flipped out over it, unless she thinks that because she was described as a ‘mere’ secretary, it means she’s going to get a pay cut.

<< I control the world with these fingers… >>

Political correctness it seems. Same thing around here. We were specifically told to wish “happy administrative assisitant day” to the former secretaries.

Hey, we don’t even have ‘employees’ anymore…everyone is an ‘associate’.

It’s all feel good PC stuff from the time-out generation who is all grown up and wants everyone to feel special.

We’re all clerks anyway…VP, Manager, etc…we’re just clerks…what’s the difference. In most offices, the secretary is the most respected person anyway.

This means war! Alert the Administrative Assistant of Defense!

It is kind of funny that you mention that. I was talking to the HR officer at my employer, a Fortune 800 manufacturing firm and we mentioned odd job titles.
It turns out that at our company there are “Secretaries” and “Administrative Assistants” existing separately as two distinct job titles.
Secretaries make noticeably more than Administrative Assistants at my employer.


So, does that mean Colin Powell is now Administrative Assistant of State? Is Donald Rumsfeld supposed to be referred to as Administrative Assistant of Defense?


I think that there is a level of PC (whatever that means), but I think there are two other reasons for job position changes.

One is the old trick if you can’t raise someone’s wage, then you give 'em a bigger title. “You are not a janitor earning minimum wage. Oh, no!, you are a disposal technician earning minimum wage.”

Two, as far as associates, well, that has to do with the fact that supermarket stores and fast food chains and similar want to avoid unionization. “Oh, no, why do you want to join X union?! You not a mere employee in MegaMarket, why you are one of us! You are an associate!”

By the way, it’s not Secretary, it’s Professional Administrative Assistant to you!

Finally, she might have been mad that when she was hired her position was labeled different and THEN to see that she is being referred as secretary. W e l l l l l l . . .:slight_smile:


When I first entered the business world, “secretary” was a position to which office workers aspired. It ranked far above a “typist” or a “clerk.” A “secretary” was out-ranked by an “executive secretary” and/or a “private secretary.” I don’t know when “secretary” became a bad word, but my own wife, who does everything a private secretary used to do, insists on being called an “administrative assistant.”

I’m with Nightsong and Philster on this one. “Secretary” connotates subservience in today’s business world, dictionary definition notwithstanding.

<slight hijack>
My first job out of college was “Secretary II” with a textbook publisher. The company also had “administrative assistants”, in which the position was basically an overglorified extension of my position, complete with a substantial pay rate. “Secretary I” people were basically receptionists who also did light typing.

The secretaries at my school are proud to be called secretaries. Besides, they possess great secretarial skills. What do administrative assistants have–administrative assistory skills?

The website of the International Association of Administrative Professionals (formerly Professional Secretaries International) has a history of the term secretary and the secretarial profession that explains the evolving role and the reason behind the name change.

I’m not an “Associate”…

…I’m a “resource.” :frowning:

(Which would explain why I’m treated like a disposable ink pen these days)

I agree that it’s probably just another case of PC-ness.

But keep in mind that for someone who aspires to a career in administration, title can be very important.

If you have a title that sounds as if you have some responsibility, it can be easier to get a better job somewhere else.

For example, let’s suppose you are an “administrative assistant” instead of a “secretary.” Let’s further suppose that you threw a couple office birthday parties for a couple of the other secretaries.

When job-hunting, you might claim that you are “responsible for organizing company social functions”

At the local greenhouse there were signs advertising…

not Secretaries Day

nor even Administrative Assistant

… but …

Administrative Professionals Day!!!

But I do think it’s bizarre. I can’t think of any other profession in which there is such a demanding “title inflation”. I can’t think of what they will be called in the future. Maybe “Holy Emperors of the Universe”.

IIRC there was a debate in Slate about people being called “retarded” and how it sounded bad now. But that’s only because kids use it as an insult. “Retarded” at one point sounded P.C. So anything we call retarded people will become the newest insult in the arsenal of children and will sound bad eventually because of it.

I guess the same thing happens here. But it implies that the job taints the title, not the other way around. So why do people think that secretarial/administrative assistant/administrative professional duties are bad enough to taint the title?

From what I see, Mentally Retarded is still used.

But yes, the newest names always become the new insults. Like now, calling people socially-challenged morons…sigh

What about Stewards and Stewardess?

“Flight Attendants.”

Who are now Flight Attendants. Twenty or so years ago being a Xxxxxxxxx Technician was a decent job title that connotated technical expertise. and it’s metamorphosed over time such that many who would have aspired to such a title care for it less now.

Interesting question. I think it has to do with perception…

Way back when, when I was a secretary I dated a fellow for a while. He broke up with me, and when asked why by friends replied “Well, she’s just a secretary.”

Which was true. What was also true was that I was paid about $5,000 more per year than he was, and he was just an accountant.

At the University I work at there is a big distinction between “secretary” and “administrator” - both in job duties and pay scale, however, sometimes people call me a secretary which is fine with me, particularly if I get a free lunch out of it. :stuck_out_tongue:

Speaking of changing job titles, I was interviewed the other day at a law firm, not by the Human Resoures Manager, but by the illustrious People and Development Manager. :rolleyes:

The firm’s librarian was called the Know-How Manager. The library contained not books and journals, but Knowledge Tools. Would another :rolleyes: be out of place here?

**Back in my first few years of uni, I worked a summer job picking legumes at a university field station. However, I was no mere field worker, I was… a Research Technician!