Mistakes were made. Maybe.

Dear Word Detective: I often see the word “Ombudsman” used to mean a representative of the interest of “the people” with the government, IRS, utility, etc. What is the origin of this word and its strict meaning? — Jerry Bacon.

Ah yes, the people, or, as Carl Sandburg put it, The People, Yes. A representative of the interests of the people versus the Big Guys would be nice. Good idea. I’d volunteer for the job, but I haven’t time to do it because I spend every day on hold to some government agency or transnational corporation that claims to care about my problem but apparently can’t tear itself away from its Facebook page long enough to come to the phone. The internet might as well have been invented to make corporations even less responsive than they already were. My favorite caseĀ  is the local power company, which, when you call to complain that you have no electricity because groundhogs have chewed through the lines again, greets you with a recording telling you how to file a complaint on their web page. Which I can’t see. Because my steam-powered computer is in the shop.

An “ombudsman” is a professional complaint fielder, a person who receives and investigates gripes from constituents, customers and similar rabble, and who, at least in theory, pursues justice and negotiates, on behalf of the whiner, settlements of said grievance with the company, agency or institution responsible. An “ombudsman” is, again in theory, an independent, impartial investigator disinterested in the outcome of any particular case, devoted only to truth, justice and rainbow ponies for everyone. In practice, cynics may note, “ombudsmen” are usually appointed and paid by the organization or institution they are charged with monitoring, so the ponies sometimes smell more like rats.

“Ombudsman” sounds a bit strange to English-speaking ears because it is, in fact, Swedish, and only became widely known in English in the 1960s. The root of “ombudsman” is the Old Norse “umbothsmathr,” which literally meant “commission man” (“umboth” plus “mathr,” man). The “commission” element referred to the fact that the “umbothsmathr” was essentially a manager with power delegated by the government. The modern sense of “ombudsman” originated in Sweden in 1809 with the office of “justitieombudsman” (justice ombudsman), an official appointed by Parliament to protect citizens from abuses by the state.

The office of “ombudsman” was subsequently adopted by a number of other Scandinavian countries (and New Zealand in 1961), and Britain finally established its own “ombudsman” (called the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration) in 1967. Most countries have some form of agency serving the role of an ombudsman today, although the United States has never had a national ombudsman. (After all, we already have several hundred members of Congress assiduously ignoring our complaints.) Several federal agencies, and many state government agencies in the US do have official ombudsmen, and large “public service” corporations (power companies, hospitals, etc.) often have an “ombudsman” to whom consumers can appeal for help. (The “ombudsman” is frequently a woman, and the term “ombudswoman” is often used in such cases.)

Apart from meaning “official appointed to protect citizens,” the term “ombudsman” is also used to mean, more generally, “a mediator or representative charged with representing the interests of individuals in a particular group” (“The adults would draw me in as a messenger: I became a sort of ombudsman, negotiating between my grandmother, my parents and my cousins,” 1995). Many newspapers and other media organizations (e.g., NPR) now employ “ombudsmen” to address public complaints of bias or inaccuracy in their coverage.

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