Men in work titles – Norway’s oldest work title causes debate

The Norwegian police title lensmann will soon be replaced, along with other public work titles with gendered words in them. Picture: Daniel DeNiazi/Pixabay

The possibly oldest official work title in Norway, lensmann, is being replaced with a gender neutral title these days. The newest title suggestion from the Norwegian National Police Directorate (POD) has caused a heated debate on social media.

Rural police chiefs should be called the politiavdelingsleder (police department head), the POD suggested to the Ministry of Justice and Public Security late January.

Opponents claim is a long and complicated word, compared with lensmann. “Let us move from a well-integrated word with two syllables to a new word with eight(!) syllables. Good luck with integrating that into the language” says @VigleikM in a tweet.

The 900-years old title «Lensmann» traditionally, referred to the holder of a royal fief in both Denmark and Norway. In modern ages, the lensmann is the leader of a rural police district. It is the suffix -man that makes the word a problem in today’s time.

The change is part of a governmental decision from 2019, which states that all official job titles with reference to a gender in it shall be replaced. This is meant to increase equality in the public sector. It is also a response to the changes in work tasks held by the lensmann. But the debate that rages on social media discusses mainly the title change, not the position’s function.

Jenny Klinge, parliamentary politician for the oppositional Centre Party, thinks the new title distances Norway from its own culture and tradition. “The words they replace them with are not gender neutral either. They are all masculine words. I don’t think that’s any better,” she says to The Lens, adding that it is then better to stick to the old, Norwegian title with historical roots.

Klinge thinks a title change does not help to increase equality in the police force. “We must dare to give ourselves ambitions, and we must be allowed to have ambitions,” she says.

Others argue the change of title shows progress in society. “Agreed. Lensmann is outdated and gender-focused. Sheriff says nothing about gender and is a much tougher word,” says Twitter user @TorillT_ in a reply to @permy’s, who says sheriff is a better title

“When the gender neutral or gender balanced titles are implemented, people tend to prefer them after some time has passed,” says Daniel Ims, section chief for language care and language advice in the Language Council of Norway; a central actor when a public work title is changed.

Without commenting on the current lensmann-debate, Ims says that the Language Council in general supports the use of gender neutral work titles whenever it is possible.  

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