When I was learning English back in school (in the nineties), there were pupils and teachers. Now there seem to be students and professors, where a "professor" can be anyone who happens to teach people in a school environment.

Maybe this strikes me as odd because of the fact that both "Student" and "Professor" are used in German, too. However, "Student" refers to someone at studying at a university, and "Professor" strictly is reserved for someone who has earned a habilitation or has been appointed to a professorship (possibly honoris causa).

  • Has that strict use ever been the prevalent case with English?
  • Is it the difference between AE and BE usage?
  • Or is it just to euphemism-creep?
  • Since pupil and teacher are not offensive by any measure, I don't think that the term euphemism applies. – RegDwigнt Jan 14 '11 at 16:09
  • @Reg: Well, euphemisms are not necessarily to cover or weaken offensive terms. They are used to make things sound better than they are. See a few paragraphs down your liked article: "Euphemisms may be used to hide unpleasant or disturbing ideas, even when the literal term for them is not necessarily offensive.". – Tomalak Jan 14 '11 at 16:22
  • That paragraph refers to examples such as downsizing for layoffs, which is indeed unpleasant or disturbing to the people being laid off. I don't think that the word teacher is even remotely in the same ballpark. – RegDwigнt Jan 14 '11 at 16:45
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    @RegDwight: I’m with Tomalak — there is an aspect of euphemism here, at least for the student/pupil distinction, since “pupil” may be seen as less respectful. An analogous case more often described as euphemistic: “secretary” was originally a prestigious, powerful position (cf. etymology); it became used for a less powerful, often sterotyped job, and thus gradually acquired pejorative connotations; because of these, more prestigious-sounding job titles such as “administrator”, “personal assistant” etc. started replacing it; now these titles in turn are losing some of the respect they carried. – PLL Jan 14 '11 at 17:11
  • @PLL: Thanks, that's what I'm talking about. There are other examples, but title inflation in corporate environments is an exceptionally good breeding ground for this type of euphemism. The other field where this is a strong tendency is sales, of course. – Tomalak Jan 21 '11 at 0:29

In the most general sense, here's the breakdown:

  • primary/elementary school: pupils/students and teachers
  • secondary/middle/high school: students and teachers
  • university/college: students and lecturers/instructors/professors

A high school teacher is certainly not a professor. Sometimes, college/university professors are referred to as teachers in a very general sense. In the US, pupil is not often used. This is more common in Commonwealth countries.

  • +1, I'll add that Professor is usually given to a teacher at a university who doesn't have a PhD. Those with PhDs are usually referred to as Doctor – Stephen Furlani Jan 14 '11 at 16:05
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    @Stephen: That contradicts my experience. Doctor is a status you have achieved through your qualifications: if you hold a PhD, then you're a doctor. Professor, on the other hand, applies to those that hold a certain position at a teaching institution. I have a PhD but I am unemployed, so I am still a doctor but not a professor. Once I get a job at university, I will become a professor. In other words, professor is an office rather than a title. – CesarGon Jan 14 '11 at 16:31
  • @CesarGon, true. The job title will be "Professor," "Assistant Professor," "Adjunct Professor," etc. but anyone with a PhD I've been required to call "Doctor." – Stephen Furlani Jan 14 '11 at 16:33
  • @Stephen: Exactly, regardless of their position. – CesarGon Jan 14 '11 at 16:34
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    +1. Re the use of a “Professor”, there is a big US/UK difference here. In the US and Canada, most university teachers will have some variety of “professor” as their formal job title, as @Stephen says, but it also has a more generic non-technical meaning, as per @Jimi’s answer. My job title is “postdoctoral fellow”, but when I’m teaching, my students call me a professor. In the UK, the title “Professor” is much more exclusive — closer to US “Chair” — and the generic usage is not very common. “Lecturer” in the UK is about parallel to “Professor” in US/Canada. I don’t know about Aus/NZ. – PLL Jan 14 '11 at 17:01

The terms pupil and teacher usually apply to elementary school through high school. Students can be any level, but you don't get professors until you get to college.

  • I've seen it being used as "I've been a professor for xyz for two years". As if being a professor is something you can do for a day job. – Tomalak Jan 14 '11 at 2:44
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    I'm not sure if you're kidding here, but "professor" is indeed a full-time job. My brother-in-law, for example, is a professor of computer science. Last I checked he was fully employed. – Robusto Jan 14 '11 at 2:46
  • I think there's some miscommunication here as a result of cultural differences. – Jimi Oke Jan 14 '11 at 7:46
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    I'm of course not kidding. To me, professor is a title, not a job. You do not stop being one just because you decide to stop teaching computer science to people and become a gardener instead. That's what I'm asking, basically: Can one say to be a "professor" without having habilitated, i.e. having earned the highest scholarly honor in existence? Because that's what I think of when I hear professor. When I see someone in their thirties saying they'd be a professor, they are either geniuses or they use the word differently than I would. – Tomalak Jan 14 '11 at 8:04
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    @Tomalak: Unlike in Europe (or in Germany where one actually has to be habilitated) or even in much of the rest of the world, it does not take as long to become an assistant professor in the US. In fact, you can become an associate/assistant professor right after your PhD or postdoc. And here in the US, professor denotes the profession, not just the title. Thus, it's not unheard for college instructors who don't even have doctorates to be called professors. One might hear: I'm a college professor, I've been a professor here for 20 years, etc. – Jimi Oke Jan 14 '11 at 8:58

The term "professor" to mean a teacher is more common in the US than the UK- here even in a university setting you are as likely to talk about a lecturer as a professor.

Since university I have always talked about it in terms of students and teachers or instructors when I have been learning from people. Pupil, although quite correct, carries more of an overtone of a schoolchild.

  • 2
    I'd put it more strongly. In a British university, "professor" is an office, not a job, which relatively few academics hold; and it would be a social error to refer to somebody as a professor who did not hold that office. In at least some universities "lecturer" is also formally an office to which one may be appointed (and "reader" another); but the most common word for a university teacher of indeterminate grade is "lecturer". – Colin Fine Jan 14 '11 at 16:09

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