AskDefine | Define secretary

Dictionary Definition



1 a person who is head of an administrative department of government
2 an assistant who handles correspondence and clerical work for a boss or an organization [syn: secretarial assistant]
3 a person to whom a secret is entrusted [syn: repository]
4 a desk used for writing [syn: writing table, escritoire, secretaire]

User Contributed Dictionary



From secretarius, one entrusted with secrets.


/ˈsekrətəri/, /"sekr@t@ri/


  1. A person who keeps records, takes notes and handles general clerical work.
  2. The head of a department of government.
  3. A managerial or leading position in certain non-profit organizations, such as political parties, trade unions, international organizations.
    Kofi Annan is the current secretary general of the United Nations.
  4. A type of desk.
  5. A species of bird; Sagittarius serpentarius.

Derived terms

Related terms


person keeping records and handling clerical work
head of a department of government
leading or managerial position in certain organizations
  • Czech: tajemník
  • Finnish: sihteeri
type of desk
  • Finnish: kirjoituspöytä
  • French: secrétaire
  • German: Schreibsekretär
  • Interlingua: bureau
  • Kurdish:
    Kurmanji: sekreter
  • Portuguese: escrivaninha
sagittarius serpentarius
  • Finnish: sihteeri
  • French: messager serpentaire
  • German: Sekretär
  • Spanish: serpentario

Extensive Definition

A secretary is either an administrative assistant in business office administration, or a certain type of mid- or high-level governmental position, such as a Secretary of State.
The executive secretary (sometimes called administrative assistant or associate) has a myriad of administrative duties. Traditionally, these duties were mostly related to correspondence, such as the typing out of letters, making coffee, and pretty much doing what ever they are told. The advent of word processing has significantly reduced the time that such duties require, with the result that many new tasks have come under the oversee of the secretary. These might include managing budgets and doing bookkeeping, maintaining websites, and making travel arrangements. Secretaries might manage all the administrative details of running a high level conference or arrange the catering for a typical lunch meeting. Often executives will ask their assistant to write original documents for review and also to collaborate with others. They may also do personnel paperwork which used to be thought of as a Human Relations function; this might also include understanding the complex rules regarding Visa and Immigration.
To be successful today the executive assistant must have a broad level of skills and be creative in managing new situations. As such a 4 year degree (Bachelors of Arts) is often preferred and a 2 year degree is usually a requirement.
The governmental title usually refers to a department-head type of position, though positions such as that of the United Nations Secretary-General may also describe the leader of an organisation.


The term is derived from the [Latin] word secernere, "to distinguish" or "to set apart," the passive participle (secretum) meaning "having been set apart," with the eventual connotation of something private or confidential. A secretarius was a person (BRETT) , therefore, overseeing business confidentially, usually for a powerful individual (a king, pope, etc).

Office secretary


Since the Renaissance until the late 19th century, men involved in the daily correspondence and the activities of the mighty had assumed the title of secretary (or in other cases, "clerk"). With time, like many titles, the term was applied to more and varied functions, leading to compound titles to specify various secretarial work better, like general secretary, financial secretary or Secretary of state. Just "secretary" remained in use either as an abbreviation when clear in the context or for relatively modest positions such as administrative assistant of the officer(s) in charge, either individually or as member of a secretariat. As such less influential posts became more feminine and common with the multiplication of bureaucracies in the public and private sectors, new words were also coined to describe them, such as personal assistant.

Modern developments

In the 1880s, with the invention of the typewriter, more women began to enter the field, and since World War I, the role of secretary has been primarily associated with women. By the 1930s, fewer men were entering the field of secretaries.
In an effort to promote professionalism amongst United States secretaries, the National Secretaries Association was created in 1942. Today, this organization is known as the International Association of Administrative Professionals (IAAP) The organization developed the first standardized test for office workers called the Certified Professional Secretaries Examination (CPS). It was first administered in 1951.
In 1952, Mary Barrett, president of the National Secretaries Association, C. King Woodbridge, president of Dictaphone Corporation, and American businessman Harry F. Klemfuss created a special Secretary's Day holiday, to recognize the hard work of the staff in the office. The holiday caught on, and during the fourth week of April is now celebrated in offices all over the world. It has been renamed "Administrative Professional's Week" to highlight the increased responsibility of today's secretary and other administrative workers, and to avoid embarrassment to those who out of political correctness believe that "secretary" refers only to women or to unskilled workers.

Contemporary employment

In a business many job descriptions overlap. However, while administrative assistant is a generic term, not necessarily implying directly working for a superior, a secretary is usually a personal assistant to a manager or executive. Other titles describing jobs similar to or overlapping those of the traditional secretary are office coordinator, executive assistant, office manager and administrative professional.
  • At the most basic level a secretary may need only a good command of the prevailing office language and the ability to type, and may spend a large part of his or her time filing and fetching papers (or the equivalent regarding electronic files and database information) or answering telephones.
  • A more skilled executive assistant may be required to type at high speeds using technical or foreign languages, organize diaries, itineraries and meetings and carry out administrative duties which may include accountancy. An executive secretary / assistant may also control access to a manager, thus becoming an influential and trusted aide. Executive assistants are available for contact during off hours by new electronic communication methods for consultations.
  • The largest difference between a generalized secretary and skilled executive assistants is that the executive assistant is required to be able to interact extensively with the general public, vendors, customers, and any other person or group that the executive is responsible to interact with. As the level that the executive interacts with increases so does the level of skill required in the executive assistant that works with the executive. Those executive assistants that work with corporate officers must be capable of emulating the style, corporate philosophy, and corporate persona of the executive for which they work. In the modern workplace the advancement of the executives assistant is codependant on the success of the executive and the ability of both to make the job performance of the team seamless whereas the job place evaluation is reflective of each others performance.
  • Executive assistants are normally required to maintain job skills at the current state of the art. It is a normal requirement of the executive assistant to be required to complete continuing job education on their own time, with reimbursement for tuition and class supplies.'''

Governmental secretary

In the USA, many high-level government positions leading their section of the executive branch are called 'Secretaries', such as the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Interior or the Secretary of Defense.
In the United Kingdom government, a Parliamentary Private Secretary is the chief assistant of a Secretary of State or Minister of the Crown. Senior civil servants may also have a Private Secretary. Depending upon the seniority of their principal, a Private Secretary may him or herself be regarded as an important official in their own right.
In Australia, the appointed senior civil service administrator of each Department of State is titled Secretary, normally with various levels of Deputy Secretary and Assistant Secretary beneath them.
The Private Secretary to the Sovereign and the Private Secretary to the Prime Minister are the most important. A Private Secretary can be assisted by one or more Assistant - and or Deputy Secretaries, or even head a whole office in which those may be section chiefs.
In several continental European states, similar positions (to a head of state or executive minister) are given names meaning chief of the 'cabinet' (e.g. Chef de cabinet in French) in the sense of personal advisory and administrative staff, indeed like a Chief of Staff heading a bureau that may in fact include one or more functions styled Secretary, e.g. Press Secretary, Social Secretary. The same function may exist under another name without the word 'Private', and to a gubernotorial dignitary, e.g. Secretary to the Governor General as in Canada.
Other cultural traditions have one or more specific terms for a similar position, e.g. in the former kingdom of Afghanistan, Shaghasi-i-Huzuri (from Shaghasi Chamberlain & Huzur Presence) meant 'Private Secretary to the King'.
In the People's Republic of China, a Party Committee Secretary, colloquially termed a party chief (党委书记), is the most prominent regional Communist Party leadership office, usually the number-one figure in their respective regions. For example, Yu Zhengsheng, the Communist Party Shanghai Committee Secretary, is the city's highest ranked leader, higher than the mayor.

Medical secretary

A medical secretary provides secretarial support in clinics. Duties are e.g. to inform patients of costs and further information resources for care offered. Other duties are to answer telephones, relay messages and greet visitors. Duties depend on instructions and pre-established guidelines from medical staff.
The job requires a high school diploma or its equivalent in addition to 0-2 years of related experience.
The average salary is $31,620 in the United States.


secretary in Arabic: سكرتارية
secretary in German: Sekretär
secretary in Estonian: Sekretär
secretary in Esperanto: Sekretario
secretary in French: Secrétaire
secretary in Indonesian: Sekretaris
secretary in Hebrew: מזכירה
secretary in Georgian: მდივანი (თანამდებობა)
secretary in Macedonian: Секретар
secretary in Malay (macrolanguage): Setiausaha
secretary in Dutch: Secretaresse
secretary in Japanese: 秘書
secretary in Portuguese: Secretária executiva
secretary in Simple English: Secretary
secretary in Finnish: Sihteeri
secretary in Chinese: 秘書
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