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Is it offensive to use the term layman nowadays? Does it insinuate that the people to whom you are referring are uneducated?

I am wanting to say

This is just one of the ways that CERN's research affects the layman.

Is that acceptable?

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    Related question: english.stackexchange.com/q/77401/18655 – JLG Jan 28 '15 at 15:59
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    Layman: one who is a nonprofessional in a given field. I don't think that the term carries a derogatory connotation, unless you use it referring specifically to professional people. – user66974 Jan 28 '15 at 16:00
  • @JLG, yes. But that one is gender specific - I wasn't looking for that. I have submitted an edit to clarify that in the title. – Tim Jan 28 '15 at 16:00
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    I'm a layman in the art of tiling floors, repairing toilets, or fixing TV antennas. I'd suspect that I have a better education than many professionals in these areas. – gnasher729 Jan 28 '15 at 17:30
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    Though it's not an answer (Zibbobz, Mayo, and Mysti Sinha have all answered your actual question), I wanted to second sam pittman's suggestion of using a different term in place of "the layman"—not because "the layman" is offensive, but just because it sounds funny to me. One reason is that when you say "the layman," you seem to be referring to most of your audience, and addressing someone in the third person sounds unusual. If you want to address your audience directly, you could replace "the layman" with "everyone," or "you, even if you're not a particle physicist." – Vectornaut Jan 29 '15 at 7:50
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"Layman" is a perfectly acceptable term. No one is an expert in every field. It refers to a person who is not an expert in the field. Very educated and accomplished people are laymen in fields not related to their own. For instance a neurosurgeon may know nothing about economics or paleo-botany and may ask: "Could you please describe that in layman's terms."

Say you're at an event and you hear something that you don't understand. "This GUID is not sufficient for our needs. We need to concatenate ..." No one would consider you, or a neurosurgeon, or a physicist incompetent for not knowing what a Globally Unique Identifier is. If, however, you're passing yourself over as a DBA (Database Administrator) or cyber-security expert and you don't know what a GUID is then you're opening yourself up for ridicule.

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    "No one would consider you, or a neurosurgeon, or a physicist incompetent for not knowing what a Globally Unique Identifier is." Apparently you don't know the snotty programmers I've worked with in the past. – Mordred Jan 29 '15 at 23:15
  • Well. There are many programmers who fit their socially-inept stereotype and there is little to be done than to respond in kind in an area of your expertise. A graphics person can scoff and say: "You can't tell that the kerning is off?" Use anything that is specific to your field of work. – Mayo Jan 30 '15 at 12:02
9

The word layman is most often used to contrast with expert or professional.

It might be offensive to a 'self-proclaimed' expert who lack the expertise or as @Josh indicates- unless you use it referring specifically to professional people.(experts)

Another way to use it is to distinguish between a member of the clergy — a priest or minister, for example — and an ordinary church member, or layman.

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    This doesn't address whether or not the word has derogatory or offensive connotations. – Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Jan 28 '15 at 17:17
  • From the above context there's little danger of confusing the use with the meaning you quote. – Hot Licks Jan 28 '15 at 17:22
  • I had always thought layman was somewhat offensive because I thought it referred to a brick layer. I thought it was a career specific word like the now mostly unused milkman, mailman, policeman, etc. Apparently that's not the case. – Paul Jan 28 '15 at 19:11
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    +1 for this nuance: "It might be offensive to a 'self-proclaimed' expert who lack the expertise." – Lumberjack Jan 28 '15 at 21:57
  • If you want to put down the "self-proclaimed expert", a better way might be to call him a "wannabe". – Barmar Feb 2 '15 at 18:39
5

Only if you're using it in reference to someone who is, or is supposed to be, a member of your field (or the field you are referring to).

Unless you're speaking in a religious context, the most common definition for layman is:

A person who does not belong to a particular profession or who is not expert in some field - Mirriam Webster

If you want to refer to people who are not experts in something, referring to the layman (or as the expression usually goes, 'in layman's terms' (Meaning without specific jargon)) then this is a word that is perfectly acceptable to use. If, however, you're referring to someone who is or who proports to be an expert, then you might offend them by calling them a 'layman', as you'd be calling their expertise into question.

In fact, the same would go for if you were referring to non-clergy members, and calling a true clergyman's faith into question.

So in short, it's non-offensive if you know your audience is not an expert (or a clergyman if you're using that meaning), but can be very offensive if you're referring to a specific person, since it calls their expertise (or faith) into question.

5

Perhaps not offensive; however, you could avoid the whole issue by writing:

This is just one of the ways that CERN's research affects the public at-large.

Or

This is just one of the ways that CERN's research affects the general public.

1

I think it can be used non-offensively or pejoratively, depending on the context.

If I say to someone, "Well, let me explain this to you in layman's terms..." then it'll sound pejorative.

But when, for example, the Catholic Church refers to someone as a layman, they are referring to the laity, which is a group of people who have a particular role in the church.

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    I would not find that sentence pejorative. It might be condescending, but that depends entirely on the context. – Harry Johnston Jan 28 '15 at 21:58
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"Laity" feels less oblong and artificial in my mouth than "layperson," but it is less separated from theology than "layperson".

Given the text we provided we don't have the scope of the conversation, I believe "the public" is more correct. The silo the research itself exists in is irrelevant, because it is affecting everyone the same, if it affected the pious CERN loyalists somehow DIFFERENTLY... then I could see it.

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    I would say that "laity" is almost always used in the religious context. – Hot Licks Jan 29 '15 at 0:35
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Perspective: Aging antipodean, outer edge of the Empire, first to see the light, Queens English spoken here, accent may sound strange ... (aka: New Zealander).

Sounds fine as is.
But, call me a layperson and I'll walk out :-) (if only virtually).

Nowadays one might use eg "the general public" or eg "people in all walks of life" or ..., but "the layman" would pass through my mental filters without a ripple.

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    This is a very difficult answer to follow what you are saying... – Tim Jan 29 '15 at 18:49
0

In an older dictionary I use, namely, Webster's New International English Dictionary of 1947, it simply states that a layman is "One of the people, in distinction from the clergy, one of the laity." Laity is simply defined as, "The people". From my point of the view it seems logical and proper to be so referred to as a layman or one of the laymen. We are all one of the people either as citizens or members of a particular church or some other entity. Should we be insulted by hearing that we are one of the people or one of the layman? Its all a matter of attitude. Its like people years ago could say when they were expressing happiness, I feel gay! Because the meaning of that word has changed dramatically over the last few decades the word gay is rarely or never used to express joy or happiness. Maybe we should start up again an old tradition with both words. It is fitting and proper in my view.

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This is just one of the ways that CERN's research affects the layman.

This is wrong, incorrect English speech.

The term "layman" should ONLY be used in reference to understanding, as in:

Can you provide a layman's explanation for the rest of us?

Or:

I will provide a layman explanation.

You should NEVER use the term "layman" as a substitute for "general public" or "ordinary folk", and yes it could be construed as a bit offensive. It is almost on par as "serfs" or "paupers" when used in this way.

When used in reference to understanding, the term "layman" is not really about denigrating people who don't understand, but elevating some other body of knowledge (like theoretical physics), to being well above what the ordinary person could be expected to know about. In this sense, it is more closely related to calling very knowledgeable/intelligent people "geeks" or "propeller-heads".

  • @Tim definitions of words yield little useful insight into their appropriate use given context and period. The general public have not been referred to as "layman" since the 19th century, and your usage would seem dated and anachronistic to any contemporary reader. – aaa90210 Jan 28 '15 at 21:43
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    You are quite simply wrong. A "layman" is someone who is not an expert or professional in the field. merriam-webster.com/dictionary/layman – Hot Licks Jan 28 '15 at 22:05
  • And note: books.google.com/ngrams/… -- "layman" goes down about the same time that "layperson" appears. The two don't exactly mirror because other "genderless" terms were used instead. – Hot Licks Jan 28 '15 at 22:10

protected by tchrist Jan 30 '15 at 0:25

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