9

The US Senate is referred to as the upper house of Congress. And the 'House of Representatives' which is also part of Congress, is referred as the lower house.

A member of the US Senate is called a Senator, not a Congressperson.

But Members of the House of Representatives are referred to as Congresspeople, Why?

6
  • 2
    This is true in the UK (and some other places) as well. "Member of Parliament" (MP) refers specifically to members to of the House of Commons, even though members of the House of Lords are also members (but not Members) of Parliament. Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 9:56
  • 1
    I flipped through some Wikipedia pages and "Congress[person]" and "Member of Parliament" to refer to the lower house despite using the name of the whole legislature seems to be mostly an English feature, interesting. Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 20:19
  • Lots of "deputies" and "delegates" in other languages. Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 20:19
  • 1
    It's really annoying that there's no term for "member of either house". I've used "legislator", but that never feels right because it includes members of state legislatures.
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 25, 2022 at 20:25
  • 1
    I had always assumed it was because "Senator" and "Lord" are more prestigious titles than "Congress[wo]man" and "Member of Parliament". So by the principle that you refer to someone by the "highest" title they have, even though a Senator is also a Congress[wo]man it wouldn't be usual to actually refer to a Senator as a Congress[wo]man. Thus the people who actually get referred to by the more general title are in practice only the members of the lower house, and so the term comes to mean of specifically a member of the lower house, because that's the only way people hear it used.
    – Ben
    Commented Sep 26, 2022 at 0:07

1 Answer 1

9

The word congressman has come to be associated mostly with the lower house long ago. The same connotation applies to the gender neutral congressperson though that term came into use much more recently in the second half of the 20th century, according to Google Ngram.

The question is discussed in an article by Neal Whitman on visualthesaurus.com entitled: Election Day Special: Are Senators "Congressmen"?.

The political answer on how the meaning of the word may have grown like this is given in the following excerpt of that article:

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 linguistic answer is given in the next paragraph of the same article:

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).

So it seems to have gained this word usage somewhere in the late 18th century. I don't think there's a specific reason why the word had to gain this particular meaning. I don't think there is a interesting political answer beyond noting that (professional) writers started (or continued in case this was common in speech, though that may not be as well-documented) attributing this meaning and it stuck over time.

1

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .