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Is layman a gender specific term, or can it be used like (college) freshman?

Is it still appropriate to use, or has it been superseded by some other term?

Specific to IT, it seems more appropriate to say user instead of layman. However, are the two equivalent, or are there any subtle differences?

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The gender issue is a tricky one. Many words ending with -man (e.g., chairman, fireman, layman) seem to be referring to males. As women moved into these professions, some took offense to a word implying that women were not included.

There's been a move away from that, and the -man suffix is often interpreted to mean a person, not necessarily a man. NOAD, Collins, M-W, and Macmillan all define layman with terms like someone or a person, such as:

  • a person who does not belong to a particular profession or who is not expert in some field (M-W)
  • a person without professional or specialized knowledge in a particular subject (NOAD)

Collins adds a note that layperson is a gender-neutral version of the word (although its definition reads gender-neutral):

a person who does not have specialized or professional knowledge of a subject

CDO doesn't even mention this usage of the word under its British English definition (only listing the religious meaning of the word), but its American English definition does define layman as a non-expert. Like the other dictionaries I've cited, their definition reads gender neutral (a person who is not trained in or does not have a detailed knowledge of a particular subject), although their entry also lists layperson and laywoman as alternate forms.

As for layman vs. user; I've heard the term expert user used to reference to proficient users of a system:

expert user: A person with sufficient knowledge and experience to be able to use a library or computer system effectively and efficiently, with only occasional assistance. The opposite of novice. (ODLIS)

So, perhaps novice is a better word than layman for describing users who, in the context of that system, only have the proficiency of a layman.

So, to recap:

Is layman a gender specific term or can it be used like college 'freshman'?
That can go either way; it can be used gender-neutrally, or you can use layperson instead.

Is it still appropriate to use, or has it been superseded by some other term?
Yes, the word is still in use.

Specific to IT, it seems more appropriate to say user instead of layman. However are the two equivalent or are there any subtle differences?
No, they are not equivalent (for one, not all users are laymen). You might use the term generically, to describe those who aren't "power users", but there are probably better and more clear ways to make that distinction.

  • Consider ombudsman < umboðsmaðr, where man never meant the male of our species. Or consider “man's proper place among the animals”. The Bushmen of southern Africa aren’t exclusively male. Not even the most politically correct of Germans pepper their Mann sagt with the occasional ∗Frau sagt; why must English feel it needs to do so? Hume: “There is in all men, both male and female, a desire and power of generation more active than is ever universally exerted.” Tolkien: “I once knew every spell in all the tongues of Elves or Men or Orcs that was ever used for such a purpose.” – tchrist Aug 7 '12 at 16:35
  • @tchrist - Um - Germans probably say "Frau sagt" quite as often as "Mann sagt"; mostly they say "man sagt". – StoneyB Aug 7 '12 at 23:31
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  • 'layperson' works as a non-gender-specific version, and is a common modern substitute for 'layman'. 'laywoman' sounds weird.
  • what are you trying to use 'layperson' for? If you're trying to distinguish from an IT expert, software developer, technically educated person, 'layperson' doesn't seem right. It usually refers to people outside of the church hierarchy, the military of police, the government, or some other institution (like 'civilian').

An outsider to technical concerns is more likely to be referred to as their role: user, customer, buyer. If you use 'layperson' that will imply some sort of officialness to the technical person which might be presumptuous.

  • I'm not really familiar with "layperson" being used in the wild. The religous sense you say you've seen it used for, I usually hear called "laiety" in groups, and "lay" used as an adjective to refer to individuals. For instance, a non-ordained preacher is a "lay minister". – T.E.D. Aug 7 '12 at 18:18
  • @T.E.D. Yes, good points. I think the OP is looking for 'an everyday person, not part of the specialists'. And though 'layperson' fits that literally with respect to technology, it just isn't used that way. You're right, layperson isn't the first thing I think of for 'not working in the church', but it works sometimes. (googling for it shows many more instances in law). – Mitch Aug 7 '12 at 18:35
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There is a gender-independent term "layperson", but "layman" is still acceptable in most circles to describe a person in a situation where gender is unimportant.

The origins of the term are religious; the Catholic Church educated members of the clergy ("professors"; having the original meaning of "those who profess the true Word") who then instructed the uneducated "laity" by interpreting the Word into the vernacular and using simple wording; "layman's terms".

In modern secular usage, the meaning is very similar; the main change is that in the 15th century, according to the Church, it was possible to know "everything", and that the clergy did. Nowadays, there's too much to know; you can be a MD/PhD and be completely unfamiliar with the various parts of your air conditioner and the procedures to repair it. So, given the general human understanding that nobody is an expert in all things, it's OK to use, but is still mildly derogatory and/or self-deprecating depending on who's using the term to describe whom. Less condescending but equivalent phrases include "in simple terms", "in plain English", etc.

While the term "laywoman" exists and originated about the same time, its original connotation was extremely condescending; not only were you uneducated, you were a woman (of unequal status to men) and so needed to have the Good News explained as if to a young child; the gender-specificity has lost most of that sting, but you're still calling out gender in the term, so I think "layperson" would be a better choice if you had to be gender-ambiguous.

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Personally, I feel its a gender-neutral term just as much as "mankind" is. It is typically pronounced (where I live) all slurred together, with the second sylable pronounced differently than "man". Almost like it is spelled "laymun".

I'm of the opinion that this adequately disguises any original gender bias enough that it is Mostly Harmless.

Some here don't seem to agree though. If you're worried about it, I'd just avoid the term. Being English, there are plenty of others available. For example: "The Uninitiated" strikes a nice tone of goofyness and forboding, while "Normals" or "normal human beings" is good if you instead want to emphasise that there's no shame in not being able to handle the nitty details.

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Gender-neutral language simply reflects progress: it is not anti-man or pro-woman, it is simply sensible. Also, not everyone identifies as either male or female. "Layperson" is always appropriate. For anyone who thinks "man" and "mankind" are gender-neutral terms, they aren't. "Humanity" and "humankind" are gender neutral. Have you ever seen the graphic depicting "the evolution of mankind"? It shows an ape, then a few different stages of human evolution leading to modern humans, and each one is depicted as male (e.g., https://www.ebay.co.uk/itm/Framed-Print-The-Evolution-of-Humans-Picture-Poster-Homosapien-Art-Man-Woman-/321942207946). The word "mankind" is as gender-neutral as that image is.

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Having come to this discussion four years later in search of an alternative to the word layman in my effort to write without gender specificity, I've decided to use the word non-practitioner, as it is both gender neutral and more specific.

  • I've never heard of non-practitioner (in BrE) - but certainly would not equate it to layman or layperson. It may depend on context or the field of expertise involved, but, to me, that conveys (for example) a doctor who is no longer practising - but who is far from a layperson. I would infer it as reffering to an expert in the field, who is perhaps studying, teaching or retired - but not actually practising. – TrevorD Dec 30 '16 at 11:45
  • What's BrE? (I'm not clear why my answer was down-voted.) – vy32 Jan 1 '17 at 2:44
  • BrE = British English. I down-voted your answer because I do not consider that non-practitioner is a valid alternative to layman - which is what the Q. was - for the reasons I have given. – TrevorD Jan 2 '17 at 10:04
  • Well, I suppose that you would know better than me. – vy32 Jan 2 '17 at 21:24
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Yes, layman is gender-specific. Per the OED:

A man who is an ‘outsider’ or a non-expert in relation to some particular profession, art, or branch of knowledge (esp. with reference to law and medicine).

There exists laywoman for the other sort, which the OED attests from the 1500s through the 20th century.

  • 4
    There is also layperson. – Noah Aug 7 '12 at 9:49
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    @Noah Jay might suggest laybeing :) – asymptotically Aug 7 '12 at 9:51
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    @asymptotically Many are the hands serve in the laity. Whether you want to distance yourself from the priesthood of computer wizards that far I cannot say. – tchrist Aug 7 '12 at 9:55
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    Layman is only gender-specific if justaposed against laywoman. Otherwise, layman is neutral just as man is neutral in older and especially religious literature. Thomas Paine wrote a book called The Rights of Man. Do you think he was only referring to the male of the species? – developerwjk Oct 18 '16 at 19:11

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