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In some languages the word-by-word translation of "so called" usually has a neutral connotation. E.g. in the Czech language you may very often find a sentence like this (word-by-word translated from a Czech newspaper, not a genuine English text):

1. The government approved exceptions for so called non-pedagogical workers.

Here the "so called" means that what follows is a terminus technicus, a domain specific jargon.

Only sometimes (in the Czech language) in a very specific context it has a negative connotation (and is usually marked with quotation marks in written form or by showing the quotation marks by two fingers of both hands or by changing the intonation in speech):

2. The government does not accept the result of the so called "referendum" in the East Ukraine.

However, I read a recommendation in an English textbook not to use "so called" as it almost always has a negative connotation in English, like in my second example.

The book was written by a native English speaker who had lived for many years in my country and wrote recommendations specific to our locale. In my language we use "so called" by default with a neutral connotation and we usually have to mark a negative connotation somehow, e.g. by intonation. The writer of the textbook, however, advised against using it in English as its default connotation is negative.

Is it true? Do you as native speakers perceive it the same way?

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Related. –  Robusto May 29 '14 at 12:09
@Honza. It's all about how you say it. In both your sentences the context makes it fairly clear whether "so called" is being used in a sarcastic way or not, but still they can both be stressed in ways which admit the alternative interpretation. I think that's the root of the recommendation: one should be careful when using "so called" in written English because reading it different ways can create quite different meanings. –  Rupe May 29 '14 at 12:22
@FumbleFingers. There certainly is such a mechanism. It'd be more common when used with a word that is clearly being coined or introduced. "Some breeds of dog have been developed as smaller versions of pre-existing breeds. These so-called 'toy' varieties....". That's perfectly normal English where I come from (although I'm not enough of a dog expert to be sure if it's accurate) and without negativity. "So-called" in this context just kind-of means "and here's the name for the thing I'm talking about". –  Rupe May 29 '14 at 12:42
It can be used neutrally but I would agree that it is usually used negatively. The use of so-called signals that the author disagrees with the nomenclature. –  user24964 May 29 '14 at 13:21
@Honza None of what I'm saying detracts from the main thrust of all our answers, which is that "so-called" is not neutral-by-default in English, so you should be very careful when using it as a translation. Clearly neutral alternatives would include things like "which are called". Your first sentence could be rendered as "The government approved exceptions for those it called 'non-pedagogical' workers". This demonstrates the significance of the "so-called": it's not saying that non-pedagogical workers are excepted, it's saying that those given the name 'non-pedagogical' are excepted. –  Rupe May 29 '14 at 13:40

12 Answers 12

up vote 48 down vote accepted

It's true that OED's first definition for so-called is just called or designated by that name, but the most recent citation for that "neutral" sense is 1863. So even though OED don't explicitly identify it as dated/out-of-fashion, that's what I would say. The "current" definition is...

Called or designated by this name or term, but not properly entitled to it or correctly described by it. Also loosely or catachrestically as a term of abuse.

It's particularly worth noting their most recent citation for that sense...

1980 W. Safire in N.Y. Times Mag. 13 Jan. 6/1
Examples of sneer words are ‘self-proclaimed’, ‘would-be’, ‘purported’ and that Soviet favorite, ‘so-called’.

If William Safire says it's a sneer word, that's good enough for me.

Turning to OP's first example, I would say that the "translation" is inherently flawed, since no negative connotations are intended. Depending on context (primarily, the target readership), it might be better rendered as...

1: The government approved exceptions for "non-pedagogical" (non-teaching) workers.
2: The government approved exceptions for workers classified as "non-pedagogical".

Or you could simply omit so-called and leave it at that, for a "neutral" reference. The use of "scare quotes" doesn't necessarily carry negative connotations, so it's a credible way of simply introducing an unfamiliar technical term or usage without it being value-laden.

EDIT: In light of the many respondents supporting so-called inaffectionate 1 use of the expression, I think it's only fair to point out that Google Books claims 1650 instances of "so-called quanta". It's simply not conceivable any of them would be denigrating either the term itself, or its use in the context of some referent undeserving of the label.

In reality there are only 23 instances (of which barely a dozen are visible in context, and within that most are duplicates), and they tend to be older. But it can't be denied that some people still use the term neutrally. So we must be prepared to admit of that possibility if ever we come across a "perplexing" usage.

1 This is from subscriber-only OED - I can't find an online definition of the usage...
inaffectionate, adj. Obs. rare. Unbiased, unprejudiced.

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Here's an example of so-called being used to explain a technical tem: the company had not installed a so-called "acoustic switch" on the blowout preventer theguardian.com/environment/2010/may/03/… –  Hugo May 30 '14 at 6:38
[sic] can be used in a similar way by unscrupulous writers. –  Preston Fitzgerald Jun 2 '14 at 5:26
I would suggest that for the introduction of an unfamiliar term the phrase "what is known as s" would fit better and be more neutral than "a so called" as it makes it clear you are introducing a name for something without derision. Reminds me of the story of a "Permanent Under Secretary" being introduced as the "Everlasting Junior Typist" in Japan. –  Steve Barnes Jun 5 '14 at 5:24

Sometimes it is negative, sometimes not.

Generally if it precedes a term that is familiar and not a proper noun, it is being used to undermine that term. e.g.

Band X have just released their so-called "Greatest Hits" album.

The implication is that the songs on the album are only called "Greatest Hits", but aren't actually great or hits.

Alternatively, it can be simply used to indicate that a category name is really only defined by the things to which people apply that term. For example, from http://www.british60scinema.net/british-new-wave/

Set out in this fashion, a number of things become a bit clearer. Firstly, all the so-called New Wave films have literary antecedents, ...

Here the author is not mocking the categorisation of films as "New Wave", but highlighting that a "New Wave film" is only defined by what gets called a "New Wave film."

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"so-called New Wave" seems to be using so-called in a dismissive sense here. That might not be the intent of the author, but (given the short excerpt quoted here) it comes across that way. If he did not mean to be dismissive, but wanted a matter-of-fact description, he should have said, "Firstly, all the New Wave...". –  Phil Perry May 29 '14 at 16:56
Or "Firstly, all the films generally identified as New Wave", which lets the author distance himself from the identification in a neutral way. –  prosfilaes May 29 '14 at 23:05
An interesting self-referential example, in German though, is “Sogenanntes Linksradikales Blasorchester”. –  neubau May 30 '14 at 7:16
"...the films known as New Wave..." is another way of saying 'so-called' without implying disagreement. –  user568458 May 30 '14 at 8:22
In this case it might be dismissive of the poor choice of name for the category, rather than of the category itself. –  Evgeni Sergeev Jun 2 '14 at 3:04

It has an opposing connotation.

If someone is bothering to include "so-called" in a phrase, then they are seeing some reason to distance their own claim from that they mention. There's a few different reasons why one might do so, and if the claim is a positive one, then questioning it is negative.

Conversely, if the claim is a negative one, then the questioning it is a positive. E.g. if I describe someone as "a so-called 'criminal'" I'm suggesting that they are not really a criminal at all.

There are other reasons for using the phrase again though. I might just think a wording is stupid, as with so-called "cloud computing".

Of course, one could use it to point out a stupid wording and to cast aspersions on the applied claims, as with so-called "genius bars".

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Not always. Sometimes, it's merely used to introduce unfamiliar terminology, in which case "using a so-called X" is entirely equivalent to "using a thing called an X." –  David Richerby May 29 '14 at 21:35
@DavidRicherby: I would never use "so-called X" in a neutral sense. I think at least some of your audience is going to take "a so-called X" as negative, no matter how you mean it. –  prosfilaes May 29 '14 at 23:09
@prosfilaes At least some people will misunderstand anything you say. It's pretty common in technical writing and I don't think it's widely misunderstood there. –  David Richerby May 30 '14 at 9:16
@DavidRicherby Yes, but more people will misunderstand stuff you say if you use obscure meanings. –  prosfilaes May 30 '14 at 10:50
@prosfilaes It is not obscure in technical writing. –  David Richerby May 30 '14 at 10:55

In general usage, "so called" is used to indicate that the following words are not the writer's own, but come from another source.

When the following words are not in common parlance, it could be considered neutral. It is especially useful when the introduced phrase has a literal meaning may be confusing. I have seen it used in popular publications when introducing concepts from maths and physics: "friendly numbers", "strange particles.

When the following words are not being used in a strange way, when the literal meaning is the intended meaning, then using "so called" distances the writer from the truth of what they have written. They indicate that the writer is simply reporting another's turn off phrase. This acts to undermine the phrase and should, therefore, be considered negative.

Since interpretation is a factor here, it's a good idea to avoid "so called", unless your intention is negative.


In general, I think if a casual reader would understand the words following "so called", then its presence is unnecessary for the sake of clarification, so the negative use would then be assumed.

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+1: exactly what I wanted to say. "So-called" can be neutral in English in the right set of circumstances and context, but is ordinarily negative, so if you want to use it neutrally, you have to be very, very careful. –  Marthaª May 29 '14 at 16:53
So saying "Darwin's so called Theory of Evolution" is being negative and dismissive towards it. Even if the author merely meant to "quote" the name, that's not how it comes across. It's dangerous to use so called as a means of quoting something, as it will usually take on a negative cast. –  Phil Perry May 29 '14 at 17:02
@PhilPerry, I agree. In your example, I think "Theory of Evolution" is a sufficiently familiar term that "so called" is not needed and so its presence would be thought of as negative. –  Dancrumb May 30 '14 at 17:09
@Phil: If you ever come across "Darwin's so called Theory of Evolution", you can assume two things. 1: the author almost certainly doesn't believe humans are descended from apes. 2: the author almost certainly doesn't understand the meaning of the word "theory" in scientific contexts. I personally would go further, and say the author is probably illiterate, stupid, and trying to manipulate my thoughts. But probably I'd have stopped reading long before I got to that point. –  FumbleFingers Jun 2 '14 at 4:44

If used on something generally considered positive and desirable, the phrase "so-called" evokes a rhetoric of falsity or fraud in the thing being referred to, which is a negative connotation as you said.

You Americans and your so-called freedom fighters have been doing nothing but invading other countries to maintain your power for over half a century.

This phrase evokes the idea that what Americans call freedom fighters really aren't so, in that they're not really fighting for freedom.

It's the same idea as "scare quotes" – that you put quotes around a word that somebody else uses to describe something, to show that it's really not that thing.

You Canadians and your "free health care" are a recipe for private exploitation, structural inefficiency, and the government getting their grubby hands into people's lives.

The word "free health care" here is used ironically, because the author wants to make the point that Canadian health care is anything but free.

And, as you recognize, sometimes they're used together:

Evolutionists and their so-called "scientific theory" have too many holes in them to count.

However, this is often frowned upon as redundant, as you've used two separate indications of falsity, somewhat like saying "more better" instead of just "better" as a comparative form of "good".

Of course, sometimes it's used purely quotatively, as some other answers have pointed out, but as the connotation is never positive, only neutral or negative, it's a good idea to avoid it if you don't know what you're using it for.

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When they're used together, it's redundant, and could be considered an error, or a sign of unpolished writing. According to some, "Never employ scare quotes around a term introduced by the phrase so-called.‌​" –  J.R. May 29 '14 at 18:02
I agree that it's redundant, but nevertheless it's sometimes used in that manner. –  Joe Z. May 29 '14 at 18:04
Of course it is! Otherwise, it wouldn't have made it onto the list of "Erroneous Uses of Scare Quotes." Here on ELU, though, if we're going to mention how it's sometimes used, we ought to also mention that not everyone thinks that's a sound practice. :^) –  J.R. May 29 '14 at 18:06
Alright, I'll put that in then. –  Joe Z. May 29 '14 at 18:08
@J.R., Joe Z: Personally I wouldn't set much store by that dailywritingtips advice. Just because a usage is "redundant" doesn't imply it's "wrong". And suppose I took a pop at Americans and their so-called government of the people? It would obviously be important to know whether I was deriding what passes for "government" in the US, or the concept of "government of the people". I have no use for some style pundit's so-called "rules" if they're going to limit my powers of expression. –  FumbleFingers May 29 '14 at 20:11

Yes. Because of the doubt that it casts on the phrase that it modifies, it comes across either as snarky/sarcastic or elitist.

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+1 To say "so called" implies, at least in modern usage, that the thing is called that, but it's not exactly accurate. –  Carl Smith May 29 '14 at 12:47
@DavidRicherby. See Jon Hanna's comment below. Your usage suggests that Monge matrix is an improper, colloquial term. Even if you are only reminding the audience of their ignorance, that's still elitist. –  FeliniusRex May 30 '14 at 1:49
@DavidRicherby I don't understand; why is "which is related to a so-called Monge matrix" more useful then "which is related to a Monge matrix"? "related to matrices called Monge matrices" is also not much longer and completely clear. –  prosfilaes May 30 '14 at 11:01
"So-called" tells the listener that it's OK if they have never heard the term "Monge matrix" before. I find that completely bizarre, and simply an incorrect usage of the term. –  Joe Blow Jun 1 '14 at 17:31
@Joe: Quite. There's definitely something "not quite kosher" about citing one's own use of a term as justification for accepting that usage as correct. I tend to set the bar pretty low when it comes to scientific writing (scientists are paid to find things out, not to excel at explaining things in the best possible words), but you'd kinda hope logic would kick in at some point. –  FumbleFingers Jun 2 '14 at 4:32

If the item that follows 'so-called' is an established and widely known term for something (even if you don't exactly know what that term means (e.g., the so-called quantum theory of physics)), or if the item or phraseology is entirely unknown but the idea is immediately obvious (one can imagine hearing about 'Janet Jackson's so-called wardrobe malfunction' for the very first time), then the effect of prefacing it with 'so-called' is always to show a negative attitude toward that thing.

If the item that follows 'so-called' is not 'generally recognizable' as an established term nor as an idea of obvious meaning, then 'so-called' indicates that "the term that follows is one that other people are already using, not one that I am introducing for the first time", and expresses neutral attitude by itself (e.g., so-called inductively coupled mass spectrometers, so-called tertiary care centers, so-called insurers of last resort). However, if there is implied negativity towards the object in the rest of the sentence, the inclusion of 'so-called' will further amplify it, regardless of whether the term/idea is generally recognizable.

For example,

I went to a so-called insurer of last resort, because I couldn't find anybody else who would enrol me. (neutral, 'so-called' introduces a special term)

My so-called insurer of last resort wouldn't even take my phone call. (negative, valence of 'so-called' is determined by rest of sentence)

'So-called' might best be avoided by foreign language learners because the 'recognizablity' of a certain phrase is very hard for non-native speakers to judge, as are the subtle aspects of positivity and negativity of other words, which is quite relevant. But 'so-called' might also be best avoided by all of us because even in the strict and useful sense of 'this is a term that I have not created myself', there are much less ambiguous alternatives:

I went to what is called/what they call/what is termed/what they term/what is described/classified/categorized as an insurer of last resort; the 'term of art' or 'technical term' is 'insurer of last resort; workers called/termed non-pedagogical etc.

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Yes. Many news articles contain references to "the so-called fiscal cliff" and "the so-called nuclear option"; such usage is not pejorative but simply meant to apprise the reader of terms in use for budget sequestration or elimination of the supermajority requirement for ending filibusters in the U.S. Senate. By contrast, references to "the so-called war on drugs" or "so-called freedom fighters" are likely to occur only in the opinion sections; the intent is not to define unknown nomenclature but to dispute what the author regards as propaganda. Ambiguous cases should be handled with care. –  Greg Marks Jul 14 '14 at 0:02

As other answers have said, in native English the phrase "so-called" can carry either a neutral/factual connotation or a different connotation, depending on the context and the manner in which it is used - if the context is simply referring to a name or a term without the intent to question the use of said name or term, there is no implication that the use of said name or term is inappropriate - its usage is literal as in 'called so.'

The example you give from a Czech newspaper is a clear example of such usage and does not carry a negative connotation, it is a factual use of the phrase which is clearly and easily understood as such in native English.

As far as I understand the use of this phrase in English, it is commonly used to call a statement/name/term into question - whether or not calling something into question is negative or not, again depends on context, obviously; however it is not entirely, or always, used in this way.

As you say, when this phrase is used with the intention of calling someone or something into question, it is necessary to indicate somehow that this is the intended meaning behind the use of the phrase, e.g. by intonation as you mention.

So in answer to your question as to whether it is true that the phrase "so-called" has a default connotation that is negative in native English, I say that the writer's statement is not true - it is only true where it is true - when the person using the phrase is expressing a view that the name or term being referred to is inappropriate, in the context of a dispute or disagreement... the so-called "default negative connotation."

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"So called pedagogical workers" - no negative, just someone using a fancy word for teachers. "So called teachers" - very negative; a serious doubt whether these people deserve the right to be called "teachers". –  gnasher729 May 30 '14 at 14:57

Whenever I want to express the meaning "so-called" without negative connotations, I write so-called or so called.

If I want to express sneering derision and snark, I use the borrowed phrase soi disant instead.

If a governmental authority such as the U.S. Census or Bureau of Labor Statistics were to write,

The government approved exceptions for so called non-pedagogical workers.

I might laugh at the seeming irony, but I would not take it as having a negative connotation. If the authority were a law enforcement or regulatory entity such as the FBI, Securities & Exchange Commission or Sherman Act division of the Department of Justice, I would not consider it sarcastic, but rather, as describing individuals who were deceptively lacking the credentials necessary to be called teachers.

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Except soi disant means "self styled". "Cloud computing" can't be soi disant because it has no innate intelligence, and thus cannot call itself anything. –  Marthaª May 31 '14 at 3:13
True, soi disant is from French soi (“self”) + disant (“speaking”), but can also be used to mean "so called" in English. See this definition and example, "He threw the soi–disant epic novel aside in disgust." So "soi disant cloud computing" would be acceptable (sarcastic) usage, no? non? ;o) n'est pas? –  Ellie Kesselman May 31 '14 at 3:33
EL&U SE is marvelous! I just found Does soi-disant have a close English equivalent? You AND I are correct. –  Ellie Kesselman May 31 '14 at 3:41
anyone who uses soi-disant like that in english is silly. you might as well use sans souci to mean "easy" or dernier-cri to mean "fancy". Silly –  Joe Blow Jun 1 '14 at 18:11
in the example the epic novel IS soi diant .. the novel and enterprise of the novel refers to and thinks of itself as "epic". soi-disant is simply the english equivalent of "..he calls himself a _ _ _, hah !" you cannot use soi disant to replace so-called, it makes no sense. –  Joe Blow Jun 1 '14 at 18:14

The clearest translation would be something like:

... workers classified by the government as "non-pedagogical".

... workers in non-pedagogical jobs.

... jobs that fall into the government's "non-pedagogical" category.

... workers not involved in teaching ("non-pedagogical" jobs).

As others have said, the quotation marks in the first two examples might be interpreted as "scare quotes".

A key point to make is that the larger context matters a lot. For example, if the original sentence was in the middle of a clearly factual story, it might initially strike me as sarcastic usage because of the form, but I'd understand it was not meant that way. On the other hand, if it were in an editorial piece, I'd understand it to be a sarcastic reference without further elaboration.

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The Merriam Webster Dictionary defined ** so-called ** as commonly named : popularly so termed or used to indicate a name or description that you think is not really right or suitable.

It is not necessarily used to express a negative connotation. However people sometimes tend to use it expressing negativity as explained by the second meaning given above.

For example,

if a News reporter wishes to express the sentiments of the people who work in nexus with (or are related to) the culprits (who pretend to be the Robin-hoods of the society ), he might summarize his statement saying :

There are atleast 15 cases of murders accusing Mr. X, the so-called Robin-Hood of that locality.

But at the same time it may be used to express a non-negative connotation as :

The United States always enjoys a position of power in the UN Security Council owing to its so-called veto power.

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The phrase is superfluous if it does not carry a specific derogative meaning and you can use "what is known as", "as it is called" etc.

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