Why Are the Head of the State Department and an Office Assistant Both Called Secretary?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 25 2012 5:57 PM

What Does an Office Secretary Have in Common With the Secretary of Defense?

A short history of executive assistance.

Warren Buffett's secretary, Debbie Bosanek and US Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta.

Photgraph of Debbie Bosanek by Win McNamee/Getty Images. Photography of Leon Panetta by Ali Al-Saadi/AFP/Getty Images.

President Obama used the word secretary three times in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night. Twice he was referring to Warren Buffett’s executive assistant, and once to the head of the Department of Defense. Why do we call both administrative aides and the heads of Cabinet-level departments “secretaries”?

Because they both report to executives. When the word secretarie first appeared in English in the 1387 translation of Ranulf Higden’s Polychronicon, it referred to the monarch’s personal assistant. A king’s secretarie wrote letters and kept account records but had little authority—much like the modern executive secretary. Over the next century or two, noblemen across the realm started using the word to refer to their own personal assistants. (There were, however, at least eight different ways to spell secretary.) The definitional confusion began in the late 1500s, when Queen Elizabeth I vested significant power in her administrative aides. Elizabeth’s influential secretaries of state were the precursors to today’s Cabinet secretaries, who continue to carry the title even though they have no clerical duties.

While the job of secretary is quite old, the modern stereotype of an office secretary—the bespectacled young lady planted at a desk outside her boss’s door—is relatively recent. In fact, most secretaries were men until the mid- to late-19th century. As the industrial revolution developed, family-run companies gave way to large enterprises with customers and suppliers spread over vast distances. They needed new workers to manage all those files and letters. At the same time, the feminist movement made it easier for women to work outside the home. Male executives of the time felt that the repetitive, nonintellectual nature of secretarial work suited women well. The Katharine Gibbs school, founded in 1911, helped solidify the notion that executive assistance was for women by feeding young ladies into secretarial jobs and stenographic pools. There were very few male secretaries left by the 1930s.

The lack of male secretaries eventually posed a problem. Secretaries weren’t fairly compensated for their services, according to some, because employers undervalue female-dominated professions (PDF). Industry insiders began to notice that the men who trickled back into administrative work were refusing to be called “secretaries.” They were administrators, executive assistants, or office managers—people who did similar tasks but had distinctive job titles that got them more pay. Sensing that the old title was holding them back, female secretaries demanded a name change, too. In 1990, Professional Secretaries International changed its name to the International Association of Administrative Professionals.

There has been a slight reversal in recent years. Between 2009 and 2011, the percentage of administrative assistants who include “secretary” in their title nearly doubled from eight to 15. Many attribute the reversion to the television series Mad Men.

Male or female, the job duties of a secretary have remained remarkably static over the past 400 years. In his 1586 work The English Secretary, Angell Day includes among the necessary skills letter writing, keeping track of accounts, and secrecy. The word secretary is, in fact, derived from the Latin word for secret. Handling the correspondence of important people sometimes exposes secretaries to delicate information.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Susan Fenner and Ray Weikal of the International Association of Administrative Professionals and Jesse Sheidlower of the Oxford English Dictionary and author of The F Word.



Don’t Worry, Obama Isn’t Sending U.S. Troops to Fight ISIS

But the next president might. 

IOS 8 Comes Out Today. Do Not Put It on Your iPhone 4S.

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

How Much Should You Loathe NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell?

Here are the facts.

Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows


The Human Need to Find Connections in Everything

It’s the source of creativity and delusions. It can harm us more than it helps us.


More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

The Ungodly Horror of Having a Bug Crawl Into Your Ear and Scratch Away at Your Eardrum

We Could Fix Climate Change for Free. Now There’s Just One Thing Holding Us Back.

  News & Politics
Sept. 17 2014 7:03 PM Once Again, a Climate Policy Hearing Descends Into Absurdity
Business Insider
Sept. 17 2014 1:36 PM Nate Silver Versus Princeton Professor: Who Has the Right Models?
Sept. 17 2014 6:53 PM LGBTQ Luminaries Honored With MacArthur “Genius” Fellowships
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 17 2014 6:14 PM Today in Gender Gaps: Biking
  Slate Plus
Slate Fare
Sept. 17 2014 9:37 AM Is Slate Too Liberal?  A members-only open thread.
Brow Beat
Sept. 17 2014 5:56 PM Watch Louis C.K., Dave Chappelle, Bill Hicks, Mitch Hedberg, and More on New YouTube Channel
Future Tense
Sept. 17 2014 7:23 PM MIT Researchers Are Using Smartphones to Interact With Other Screens
  Health & Science
Sept. 17 2014 4:49 PM Schooling the Supreme Court on Rap Music Is it art or a true threat of violence?
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.