member of the public

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member of the public

Post by Berale » Wed May 14, 2008 3:42 am

Once again I read in today's paper about a crime involving a "member of the public", and no matter how many times I've come across this expression I still can't get my head round it.

Am I missing something? It just seems like such a pointless, meaningless piece of euphemistic journalese. What does it actually mean when they say that someone is a "member of the public"? As far as I can see, all it means is that this is a person, one of us plebs, an ordinary human being. The public is us, not an exclusive club or political party or even book club or library, where you have to take out membership. I've been a member of the public for 46 years now, how long have you been a member? Can I cut up my membership card and stop being a member of the public? Are there any benefits to being a member?

I can see the point of euphemisms for expressions that may be considered obscene or offensive, but what's so bad about saying the guy who was stabbed on Oxford Street was, well, a guy who was stabbed on the street? an ordinary bloke? If what they're trying to say is that they think he wasn't a criminal, then they could say just that: the man stabbed on Oxford Street is believed not to have been a criminal. How about that? And anyway, I don't see that criminals aren't members of the public - they're just not very law-abiding ones, that's all. And there's another expression they could use if the intention is to say he wasn't a criminal: a law-abiding citizen.

Hey, I think I've got it. In other countries they could say he was an ordinary citizen, but the Brits aren't citizens, they're subjects, and nobody would understand the expression "ordinary subjects". I wonder - am I right? Is "member of the public" just a British expression?

Rant over :-)
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Re: member of the public

Post by trolley » Wed May 14, 2008 5:39 am

He could be a member of the public at large (whoever they are). I wonder where they escaped from.
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Re: member of the public

Post by Erik_Kowal » Wed May 14, 2008 5:56 am

Your make some excellent points, Meirav. I'd never thought about the uselessness of the term 'member of the public' till you drew my attention to it, but now it sticks out like a prick in a field of vaginas.

However, it does remind me of a comment I have heard my wife make from time to time: "The problem with the general public is, they're so general." Wise words indeed.

As to the prevalence of 'member of the public' elsewhere than in the UK, my impression is that the average person in the USA would probably recognise or understand the term but would be more likely themselves to say 'citizen' or 'person' -- that is, unless it was a police officer referring to a criminal, when his or her preferred term would be, for some mysterious reason, 'gentleman'.
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Re:member of the public

Post by PhilHunt » Wed May 14, 2008 10:30 am

The Etymology Dictionary has some interesting information:
Etymology Dictionary wrote:member
c.1225 (implied in membered), from O.Fr. membre (11c.), from L. membrum "limb, member of the body, part," ptobably from PIE *mems-ro (cf. Goth. mimz "flesh"). Specific sense of "penis" is first recorded 1356, from L. membrum virile. In Eng., "member of the body" is the original sense; that of "person belonging to a group" is first attested c.1330, from notion of "constituent part of a complex structure." Meaning "one who has been elected to parliament" is from 1454.
citizen
c.1314, from Anglo-Fr. citezein (spelling alt. by infl. of denizen), from O.Fr. citeain, from cite (see city), replacing O.E. burhsittend and ceasterware. Sense of "inhabitant of a country" is 1380s.
So it seems that citizen pre-dates member but member pre-dates citizen in its sense of 'person'. This is also another one of those French imports which Americans use but British people tend not to. This would make sense as the newly freed colony of America would be looking for words to describe themselves as something other than Britsh subjects.

Subject predates member (1315). I imagine with the progression of government rule above that of monarchical rule in Britain, 'member' would have been preferable to 'subject' to refer to ordinary people.

Remember that member in its original sense just means part of a larger entity such as a limb, where as citizen implies a member of a community (originally citizen refered to a member of a town, not a country) and with this a sense of personal duty to that community; hence citizenship allows someone from another county to become a citizen of another and thus be required to contribute meaningfully through paying taxes, fighting in the armed forces if necessary etc.. Being a member of the public does not carry the same obligation.

I personally find it hilarious when a 'member of parliament' is involved in a sex scandal.
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Re: member of the public

Post by gdwdwrkr » Wed May 14, 2008 10:40 am

Around here it is "Area woman" or "Area man". I remember a spoof in the 80s, a radio 'series' starring "Area Woman!".
Although this moniker narrows it down some.
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Re: member of the public

Post by Berale » Wed May 14, 2008 2:59 pm

Good point, Phil - a "member of the public" is not necessarily a citizen of this country. (I for one should know that!)

I still wish they'd just say "a man was stabbed". I don't see what extra value we get from hearing that he was "a member of the public".
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Re: member of the public

Post by PhilHunt » Wed May 14, 2008 4:00 pm

Perhaps because it's non-sex specific.
Does the article specify if the person is a man or a woman?
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Re: member of the public

Post by russcable » Wed May 14, 2008 4:07 pm

Try this:
There was a three alarm fire yesterday. 2 companies of firemen and 20 police officers fought the fire, and city services came to help the residents while hundreds of bystanders gawked.
1) One person was killed.
2) One member of the public was killed.

For me, in sentence 1) any of the five groups of people mentioned could have suffered a casualty, while sentence 2) removes 3 of the groups.
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Re: member of the public

Post by Ken Greenwald » Wed May 14, 2008 4:18 pm

Meirav, MEMBER OF THE PUBLIC is not all that uncommon over here where it is used to distinguish between folks involved in some sort of special business versus the GENERAL PUBLIC (the more common term) or GENERAL POPULATION who are not thus involved (e.g. police from nonpolice; medical personal from non; military from civilian; elected officials from non; . . . ). On the other hand, there are instances such as you mention – “a crime involving a member of the public” – where it doesn’t make much sense, since it is not clear what this group is being compared to (policemen, firemen, medics, baseball players, stockbrokers, . . .??). Also, my search did indicate that the expression is used far less over here than in the U.K.
<1996 “Here’s one MEMBER OF THE PUBLIC who does not lack a strong view on the health-care bill.”—New York Times, 2 August> [[versus elected officials who it is assumed do]]

<1999 “The four-hour meeting came as new details emerge about the board's goals and procedures, including that the LAPD is considering whether to invite a MEMBER OF THE PUBLIC to join the inquiry. Daily News (Los Angeles, California), 25 September> [[versus members of the police force]]

<2002 “No MEMBER OF THE PUBLIC attended a public hearing Tuesday by the Syracuse Industrial Development Agency about an increase in the amount of bonds Post-Standard (Syracuse, New York), 3 April> [[only members of the agency showed up]]

<2004 “Mike Nevin should not be shifted to a seat reserved for a MEMBER OF THE PUBLIC on the SamTrans Board of Directors.” Oakland Tribune, 23 December> [[person from the public vs. one who previously worked for the San Mateo Transit before being elected]]

<2006 “Only one MEMBER OF THE PUBLIC attended a Spanish-language workshop for first-time voters, put on Sunday by the Franklin County elections department, but organizers hope more people will benefit from such meetings in the future.”—Tri-City Herald (Kennewick, Washington), 6 November> [[only workshop organizers and teachers showed up]]

<2008 “A public hearing at the Old Supreme Court Chambers in the state Capitol will bring together Secretary of State Mike Coffman, who last month decertified many of the electronic machines used by most counties, county clerks and any MEMBER OF THE PUBLIC who wants to chime in.”—Rocky Mountain News (Colorado), 8 January> [[members of the public as distinguished from the Secretary of State and county clerks]]
Ken – May 14, 2008
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Re: member of the public

Post by Berale » Thu May 15, 2008 1:04 am

PhilHunt wrote:Perhaps because it's non-sex specific.
Does the article specify if the person is a man or a woman?
Yes, it does, so it's not the gender they're trying to avoid mentioning.
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Re: member of the public

Post by Berale » Thu May 15, 2008 1:06 am

russcable wrote:Try this:
There was a three alarm fire yesterday. 2 companies of firemen and 20 police officers fought the fire, and city services came to help the residents while hundreds of bystanders gawked.
1) One person was killed.
2) One member of the public was killed.

For me, in sentence 1) any of the five groups of people mentioned could have suffered a casualty, while sentence 2) removes 3 of the groups.
Yes, Russ, this is an excellent example of a situation in which this expression does actually have value (unlike the article I was talking about). Though even here it should be possible to say "one of the bystanders was killed" or "one of the residents was killed" - I can't imagine that the reporter wouldn't know which it was.
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Re: member of the public

Post by Berale » Thu May 15, 2008 1:08 am

Ken Greenwald wrote:On the other hand, there are instances such as you mention – “a crime involving a member of the public” – where it doesn’t make much sense, since it is not clear what this group is being compared to (policemen, firemen, medics, baseball players, stockbrokers, . . .??).
My point exactly!
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Re: member of the public

Post by Berale » Thu May 15, 2008 1:11 am

Just thought I'd show you guys the article I was talking about, so you can see what I mean.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/u ... 919371.ece
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Re: member of the public

Post by russcable » Thu May 15, 2008 6:12 am

(Headline)Man stabbed to death in Oxford Street rush-hour
A man was stabbed to death in broad daylight yesterday in Britain’s prime shopping thoroughfare, Oxford Street, in Central London.
The victim, a 22-year-old member of the public, was attacked on the pavement outside McDonald’s at 4.45pm in front of scores of shoppers and commuters.
I'm going to guess that the reporter was abused by an English teacher or editor for repeating words and felt a desparate need for terms to substitute for man. (The headline writer obviously went to a different school)

Those two sentences could have been combined as well - the author seems to have conflicting desires to make the sentences as long as possible by adding qualifying phrases while not making them complex -"My goal is to use as many phrases as I can but only one verb - and I'll insert a travel guide to London inside the police blotter while I'm at it!" (^_^)

I'd be happy with "The 22-year-old was attacked...". I don't think "victim" adds much to the sentence either since we've already established that he was stabbed, killed, and now we're saying he was attacked.
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Re: member of the public

Post by Berale » Thu May 15, 2008 6:46 am

Great analysis, Russ! Yes, it seems that the reporter and whoever wrote the headline belong to different schools of thought, and that the reporter was not just schooled to avoid repetition of "man" but also not to use two words when ten will do. I'm sure most Times readers don't need to be told what Oxford Street is. I think he could easily have said:
A 22-year-old man was stabbed to death on Oxford Street, London, at 4.45pm yesterday in front of scores of shoppers and commuters.
Or if he wanted to stress the drama of an attack in broad daylight, how about:
A man was stabbed to death in broad daylight yesterday in front of scores of shoppers and commuters. The 22-year-old was attacked at 4.45pm on the pavement outside McDonald's on Oxford Street, London.
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