Joe asks his ex-boss Mary if she is willing to be contacted by future potential employers. What do we call Mary?

"Referee" is one word used for this, but that means "sports umpire" to most people.

"Reference" is another ("Will you be a reference for me"), but "reference" to most people means the action or the text of the recommendation, not the person. Also, "Will you provide a reference for me?" might mean "Will you write a recommendation?", not "Are you willing to (interactively) vouch for me"? (e.g., by phone or email conversation)

What word do we use for this willingness to interactively vouch for someone?

  • 2
    Referee is fine: thefreedictionary.com/_/dict.aspx?word=referee – Hugo Dec 2 '11 at 7:18
  • Sure, it does mean that and is used that way in some contexts. But for most people, that would cause confusion. – Joshua Fox Dec 2 '11 at 12:33
  • Evidently not for the BBC, New Zealand government and many others: google.com/search?q=CV+referees – Hugo Dec 2 '11 at 13:48
  • Referee is the correct term. If there is confusion you should clear it up. "Will you be a referee for me for job applications" clears it up just fine. – Ben May 8 '14 at 23:03

Reference, as in Will you be a reference for me, is quite commonly understood to mean the person providing the reference, in spite of some dictionaries not indicating such meaning. I don't know of any data to confirm or confute your claim that "reference to most people means the action or the text of the recommendation, not the person". I agree there can be confusion, even though "be a reference" implies acting as a reference contact.

In looking at synonyms of reference and referee, I see many words that will serve in specific cases, but no English words that have the specific meaning sought. (In Dutch, referentie means "a reference, person who vouches for another, character witness".) Synonyms of related words include: advocate, angel, backer, benefactor, bonder, champion, defender, follower, friend, guarantor, helper, partisan, patron, protector, referee, second, sponsor, supporter, warrantor, well-wisher. Neological terms include: voucher, referrer, recommender.

(Edit: removed duplicate words from list)

  • Yes, vouch-er, one who vouches, would be ideal, if it didn't mean something else. – Joshua Fox Dec 2 '11 at 12:31
  • So the meaning can be communicated, but it is not easy. If I give advice "When you go on the job market, it is important to get references," the meaning is not clear. – Joshua Fox Dec 2 '11 at 12:37
  • A referee doesn't necessarily vouch for the person. They are referred to, and they give a reference. To vouch is to give a personal assurance, but a reference can be a bad reference. – Ben May 8 '14 at 23:01

Collins: English Dictionary definition (meaning) of reference:

  1. the act of referring,
  2. a mention, this book contains several references to the Civil War
  3. direction to a passage elsewhere in a book or to another book,
  4. a book or passage referred to,
  5. a written testimonial regarding one’s character or capabilities,
  6. a person referred to for such a testimonial,
  7. relation or restriction, esp. to or by membership of a specific group, without reference to sex or age,
  8. ◇ with reference to concerning, adj containing information or facts, reference books, ◇ adj referential

Reference, personal reference, or in legal contexts, character witness.

  • But if you say "Will you give me a reference," it means "will you write me a recommendation," not "will you agree to vouch for me." "Will you be my reference" works, but this highlights the dual meaning of "reference." – Joshua Fox Dec 2 '11 at 12:32
  • @Joshua I agree with what you say. I was simply sharing my opinion and experience. You'll need to look to someone else for an analysis. – Mr.Wizard Dec 2 '11 at 18:44

Referee may carry further ambiguities besides the sense of "sports umpire". At least in U.S. academic circles (in particular in my own field, mathematics), referee is used to refer to a person who reads a scholarly article and judges its suitability for publication, as part of the process of peer review.

So if I were to walk into a colleague's office and ask her to be a referee for me, she is likely to think that I want her to pass judgment on an article, rather than to write a letter recommending me for employment.

I have heard recommender used as well, but reference seems well understood as indicating the person doing the recommending.


Referee, in the sense of the first definition, is the word I would use.

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