clerk vs secretary

  • ewie

    Senior Member
    English English
    British usage:
    clerk [pronounced 'klark' in BE] has a very old-fashioned ring to it, Argentina: I can't remember the last time I came across a job description containing the word. Historically a clerk was, generally, someone employed to do a company's endless paperwork drudgery (before endless computer drudgery came along to replace it). I imagine it was a fairly lonely and tedious job.
    A secretary is usually someone who is 'attached' to a higher-ranking employee and does all their dirty work for them: their correspondence, arranging their schedule, etc.

    American usage of clerk [pronounced 'klurk'] is slightly different ~ I'll leave that to an AE colleague.
     

    Lexiphile

    Senior Member
    England English
    I’m almost afraid to answer this question since I’m certain to offend someone, no matter what I say. I shall try to be as objective as possible.

    Fifty years ago, any one with the rank of “manager” would have a secretary: a female person whose job it was to take dictation, type letters, intercept visitors, answer the telephone and maintain her boss’s appointment diary. Some bosses, however, generated so much work that taking dictation and typing occupied too much of the secretary’s time, so these tasks were delegated to “typists” or “stenographers.” But these, generally less qualified workers also wanted to be called secretaries, so the “real” secretaries became “personal assistants.”

    Since most managers now have computers on their desks and do their own typing, the job of “typist” (meanwhile called “secretary”) more or less disappeared, so the title of “secretary” is again applied to the person (no longer necessarily female) who does remainder of the work mentioned above. So “secretary” is about the same as “personal assistant,” except in big companies where personal assistants are likely to be more involved in the management work.

    A “clerk” was and is not generally attached to a particular manager. A clerk could be male or female and does general office work (filing, making coffee, etc.) and may even, as in a bank (in Britain) deal with the public. Sometime the “office junior” is called a clerk, just to make her feel good.

    Both of these terms have other usages. The highest members of a government are often called “Secretaries” and they have “Under-Secretaries,” but none of them does any typing – they have a secretary to do that.

    And the “Clerk of the Court” is a high-ranking official in the judiciary – he rarely has to make his own coffee.
     

    junecat1

    New Member
    USA
    English
    I was curious as to what others felt the differences are between the 2 positions. Basically the same, except one is glorified.
     

    JuanEscritor

    Senior Member
    English - AmE
    How surprising it is to hear that the British have abandoned the word clerk. It is still very strong in America. It usually refers to someone working in a retail establishment who helps customers find items or takes payments (though the latter duty also falls under the term cashier).

    A clerk can also be as described above—someone who does some sort of paperwork job (like clerk in an accounting office).

    A secretary can be a 'personal assistant', as others have mentioned, but it is also often just a synonym for receptionist. Of course, there are various job titles that carry the term secretary that are by no means menial: Secretary of the Treasury, for example.

    JE
     

    Loob

    Senior Member
    English UK
    I was curious as to what others felt the differences are between the 2 positions. Basically the same, except one is glorified.
    I would say - basically not the same.

    See Lexiphile's earlier post. And Juan's comment about the AmE use of clerk as a position in a retail establishment.
     

    Parla

    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    They are certainly not the same, and it depends very much on context.

    A clerk may be a sales clerk in a store, for example; such a person helps customers and sells items to them. A file clerk is a lower position, performing routine paperwork in an office. A clerk to a judge is a highly educated graduate of a law school who assists the judge in various tasks, including the drafting of decisions; the present Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court served for a time as clerk to an earlier Chief Justice; the position is a high-ranking one.

    Secretary in general means a personal assistant to an executive, a manager, or a professional such as a physician; he or she generally prepares correspondence, answers the telephone, handles the employer's schedule, etc. There are also other positions with that title. The secretary of an organization, for example, records and issues minutes of the group's meetings, among other duties. And the members of the US President's cabinet, who head the various executive departments, also have that title: Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of the Treasury, etc.; these are top executives.
     

    LilianaB

    Banned
    Lithuanian
    Yes, I absolutely agree with Parla. These are not the same positions in the US, and the word is commonly used, especially in reference to somebody called a filing clerk -- the lowest administrative position -- usually filing papers, making copies, making coffee and watering plants. You need quite a high level of eductaion and experience to be a secretary in most offices in the US: most usually have college degrees, a lot of training and very good typing speed. In other contexts, as a law clerk -- it is a very important position in courts -- the right hand of the judge (the most important person after the judge). They usually have law school education (without having to pass the bar exam), or in some cases, some other relevant graduate education with a long-time experince in the legal field.
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    [...] and the word is commonly used, especially in reference to somebody called a filing clerk -- the lowest administrative position -- usually filing papers, making copies, making coffee and watering plants. [...]
    Do filing clerks still exist in the US, Liliana?

    In the UK, with the virtual disappearance of paper filing, the job of filing clerk (and therefore the name – and its equivalent in other European languages) also disappeared. In companies I'm familiar with, electronic documents tend to be filed by the authors or recipients themselves, or by a secretary. The other tasks you mention (copying, making coffee, watering plants) are also generally spread around other workers.

    Or is the term filing clerk still used in the US even if the person does very little actual filing? (cf. Parla's #9: "routine paperwork"). We might call that position something like "administrative assistant".

    Ws:)
     

    Wordsmyth

    Senior Member
    Native language: English (BrE)
    .
    Talking of the disappearance of paper filing, and in the context of argentina's question (clerk or secretary) ...

    I once worked in a company where my department had two full-time filing clerks (one male , one female) — and a huge room full of box-files and ring-files. When they computerised everything, the filing clerks' jobs were redefined to cover other administrative and support duties (on the same pay). The woman was given the title of secretary, but the man (doing the same work) was called an administrative assistant ('cos at that time guys weren't secretaries!). The secretary objected at first (discrimination!), until she discovered that a secretary's payscale had a higher upper limit, so more potential for increase: suddenly the name wasn't an issue. The guy didn't care: he was due to retire that year.

    Either way, there were no more "
    clerks".

    Ws
    :)
     

    junecat1

    New Member
    USA
    English
    I was curious as to what others felt the differences are between the 2 positions. Basically the same, except one is glorified.
    Wow! What a response....I was really not thinking so much of being a clerk (hence the thread) due to being under paid for everything that I do. Apparently I do a great deal more than what I'm being paid for even though it does entale low levels of duties and disrespect from those of higher levels. I suppose I should think more highly of the title and probably seek a better place to perform those duties. Thanks to everyone that added their words of wisdom.
     
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