The Meanings and Connotations of “Junior” and “Senior”

By Mark Nichol

Aside from their literal meanings, junior and senior have an array of connotations related to hierarchy.

Junior, from the Latin term juvenis, from which juvenile is also derived, refers to someone younger than another. It also applies to a young person or, more specifically, a son. Until well into the twentieth century, a boy or a young man might be addressed as Junior (though it was generally considered derogatory or at least condescending when directed at an adult), and the tradition persists of appending the abbreviation Jr. (no intervening comma is necessary) to the name of a male child who shares his father’s exact name.

Junior also applies to academic standing; in a four-year collegiate or secondary school system, a junior is someone in the third of four years of study. Schools for students in grades seven through nine (formerly grades seven and eight) in a K–12 system are often labeled “junior high schools.”

The word can also refer to someone of inferior rank (“lieutenant junior grade,” for example, as opposed to a full lieutenant, or “junior account executive”) or, in fashion, a clothing category for slender women and girls.

As an adjective, junior means “younger,” “youthful,” “more recent” (with a connotation of inferiority or subordination), “lower in rank,” or “on a smaller scale.” It also applies to class standing or, as part of the phrase “junior varsity,” an athletic team subordinate to the varsity, or the primary team.

Senior, borrowed directly from Latin and meaning “older,” is related to senile and senescence but has usually more positive connotations than those cognates. It refers to someone older than another or of higher rank. A senior in college or high school is in the final year of study, and senior might also refer, in an academic context, to a high-ranking fellow at a university.

The abbreviation Sr., following a name (again, with no intervening comma), indicates that the man so named has a son with the exact same name.

As an adjective, senior designates someone or something as having been born, or established or enrolled, before another, or being of higher rank. (Some military hierarchies have, for example, senior captains, who rank above captains.)

Senior has also become a synonym for elderly with what is widely considered a more positive connotation; it’s a truncation of “senior citizen.” It’s applied in phrases such as “senior center” and “senior rights.”

Like junior, senior can have a derogatory connotation, though, as in “senior moment,” a light-hearted reference to forgetfulness as a symptom of aging, it is usually not meant to insult. But take care with using either term to note, respectively, someone’s youth or inexperience or their age.

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13 Responses to “The Meanings and Connotations of “Junior” and “Senior””

  • Mary

    Thank you for the junior/senior disquisition. The use of junior and senior in people’s names gets into some interesting territory, I’ve found.

    For one thing, it’s curious that this tradition is used only by men. I guess it has to do with inheritance and legacy and the family name being passed down through the male line.

    The other curiosity in connection with this has to do with succeeding generations of similarly named male heirs. In the USA, this gets into areas of etiquette and propriety and, some believe, American traditions of democracy and meritocracy as opposed to England’s (and other European countries’) history of dynastic nobility. This, further, relates to American families who, for whatever reason, have pretensions to aristocracy. I once met a young man from an old Yankee family named, shall we say, Oleg Chandler Murchison IV. I refrained from rolling my eyes and telling him to get over himself, he wasn’t the Duke of Earl.

  • thebluebird11

    @Mary: I was about to say the same thing, that it seems to be only men who are preoccupied with carrying on the exact [same] name as their forebears. I do believe that I have come across a couple of women whose names are the same as their mothers’ names, but I never heard anyone refer to the elder as senior and the younger as junior. They just called them something else, like a nickname or the middle name, to differentiate between them in conversation.
    @Mark: If a person has the exact same name as his grandfather, but not his father, is one senior and one junior? and…wait, I think I had another question, but seriously am having a senior moment here…
    Oh, right. LOL @Mary and Oleg. I knew someone who also had a string of names like that…I guess maybe I shouldn’t mention his actual name here. Luckily he wasn’t so pretentious as to go about using all of the names in routine matters. But there was a “IV” at the end. He went to Princeton U and was one of my then-boyfriend’s roommates.

  • Matt Gaffney

    I enjoyed this discussion on “junior” and “senior” and, while I disagree with your comment that “no intervening comma is necessary” preceding “Jr.,” you dealt with the topic quite well.

    One thing that always amuses me is when someone introduces himself as “my name is So-and-so senior.” The gentleman might very well be a senior to a like-named son, but it’s not his name. “Senior” certainly doesn’t appear on his birth certificate. It’s much like military characters, so caught up in the rigamarole of military life, who introduce themselves as “my name is Captain So-and-so,” etc. It’s unlikely that their rank—two or three decades after birth—is likely on their birth certificate either.

    One solution to the problem Mary and “the bluebird11” allude might be our resurrecting a modest, sensible plan begun, I think, in the glorious sixties by the flower crowd: the sons of couples should have the father’s last name and the daughters of couples should have the mother’s last name. I suspect that the suggestion gained no traction simply because it is modest and sensible and, perhaps, because many men thought that it intruded onto their territory. It’s not a bad idea and, as Victor Hugo said, there is nothing . . . so powerful as an idea whose time has come.

  • John

    Mark ~ as one who was saddled with an appendage after my name —with a comma, as evidenced by my birth certificate and therefore legally, although perhaps not grammatically, correct — I have always been fascinated by this silly custom.

    First, I have never used it. I despise it. Second I have seen even sillier uses. I have seen people name a son with “II”, as in “the second”, but not junior, and therefore imagined royalty must somehow be involved??

    Second, if I had a son with the exact same name what is the proper appendage? Is he the “III”?

    Horrors!

  • thebluebird11

    @John: I’m afraid so. “Junior” is technically II if his name is exactly the same as “Senior” (who is I). Therefore, Junior’s son will be III, if his name is again exactly the same. We don’t use “sophomore” and “freshman” for those LOL. Luckily!
    @Matt: It doesn’t matter what is on the birth certificate; people’s names change all the time. Women marry and may change their names voluntarily; people dislike their first or last names for whatever reasons and change one or both (Cat Stevens, Lew Alcindor, and so forth); people add names for ceremonial uses (baptism and confirmation) and those are definitely their names, even though not on the birth certificate. I have a friend who is a colonel in the US Army (no periods there), and I have been with him on routine excursions (shopping, dining out, etc) and he has been addressed as “Mr. so-and-so,” and never ONCE has he “corrected” the speaker to say, “COLONEL so-and-so.” Actually, he is a doctor (MD) too, and he had never demanded to be called that either.
    A friend of mine has a son with his exact name, and in conversations with people who might know both (now or in the future), he does introduce himself as Mike T Senior. At home, however, if someone is looking for one of them, he is called Mike and his son is called Michael. Unless he’s in trouble LOL…then it’s first name, middle name, last name and JUNIOR! 😉

  • Mary

    @John, I disagree (respectfully, of course) with Bluebird about what to call your son John. “Jr.” and “Sr.” are somewhat casual usages, although with a firmly entrenched tradition. If you call your son “the Third” you get into dynastic territory and have to start calling you and your father “the Second” and “the “First,” respectively.

    As I mentioned earlier, this gets into etiquette and propriety more than correct grammar, and there’s no tradition that I know of that calls for saddling the tyke with “the Third.” People do it, of course, and we who know better are called upon to smile benignly.

    In the South, there is a tradition of calling third sons of the same name “Trey.”

  • Sally

    All of this looks incredibly pretentious to our (Australian) eyes – we were, after all, a bunch of convicts, not a colony of earnest petty-bourgeois puritans scrambling up the capitalist tree.

    The US may not have been an aristocracy in the European sense, but it was (and still is) a ‘meritocracy’ where one’s path in life is often greased by parental money and influence. (1). Naming a boy after his father was a way of cashing in on this – and, in all sorts of ways, “only boys mattered.”

    But back to the point, a man named, e.g., “Charles (Edward) Windsor” who called his son “Charles (Edward) Windsor” would be regarded as eccentric here, to say the least.

    If he decided to introduce himself as “Charles Windsor, Senior,” he would be met with guffaws and called a “would-be-if-he-could-be” – we might even say that he was “up himself” (*extremely* pretentious, a “self-abuser”).

    If his son tried to call himself “Charles Windsor, Junior,” he would be openly laughed at – if he essayed “Charles Windsor II,” he would be banished from any company with howls of derision.

    The second George Bush was often referred to here as ‘Shrubby’ (a ‘shrub’ is a little bush :O )

    The normal way of memorializing a parent here is to give that parent’s first name as a middle name – I am “Sally Bronwen” because ‘Bronwen’ was my mother’s first name. And, thebluebird11, I too knew that I was in trouble when mum used *both* names – even more when she added the surname!

    Many Aussies follow the practice of naming children after a grandparent.

    Nor do we use ‘Junior / Senior’ as nouns in an academic context – we say “I am in Year N at school” or “I am in my Nth year of (name of degree) at university” (2) – although in some legal firms or in certain hospitals it is still possible to be referred to as a ‘Junior.’ And there are “Senior Constables / Sergeants” – referred to simply as ‘Senior’ – in the police force.

    ‘Junior’ (for a newly appointed /elected person or one of lower rank) and ‘Senior’ (for the opposite) are normal as adjectives here, e.g., “senior officer,” “junior politician.”

    And, yes, we say “senior cit(izen)s” and “having a senior moment” too.

    _____________

    (1) Note that I am not saying that Australia does not work this way too – mine is also a capitalist country.

    (2) @thebluebird11 – My father has a Ph.D, and often jokes that MDs are not real doctors … when he feels the need for ‘one-upmanship,’ he will say, “You may call me by my *first* name – Doctor”!

  • Stephen Thorn

    Just as an FYI: My Gregg Reference Manual recommends that when writing the name of a person who uses Junior, Senior, etc. in their name it is best to use the comma (i.e. David Johnson, Jr.) if the person uses the comma. If they don’t use it, you shouldn’t either. I suppose it’s just a matter of courtesy to the person named, but it should be taken into account.

  • Dale A. Wood

    QUOTING:
    I enjoyed this discussion on “junior” and “senior” and, while I disagree with your comment that “no intervening comma is necessary” preceding “Jr.,” you dealt with the topic quite well.

    The notion of omitting the commas before and after “senior” or “junior” is merely an affectation of the Associated Press Company and its stylebook. As such, the A.P. is trying to push it off onto everyone esle.

    In reality, senior, and, junior, are both appositives, and like all appositives, they should be set aside with commas. Going back to ancient times, there were “Scipio Africanus, the older” and “Scipio Africanus, the younger”. (If I have made a mistake in this particular case, please remember that I am just making an example. I have had people launch into arguments with me when I was just creating an example of something, and not stating ironclad facts. I considered their whole reaction to be quite discourteous, and ignorant, too. I can tell the difference between an example and ironclad truth.)

    Aren’t there also “Pliny, the older” and “Pliny, the younger” ?

    We could also have “John Smith, the taxi driver” and his son “John Smith, the teacher”, or maybe these two men are not even related.

    Likewise for “Betsy Ross, the seamstress” and “Betsy Ross, the councilwoman”.

    Along a similar line, there are “Brian Williams, the Canadian broadcaster” and “Brian Williams, the American broadcaster”, and this is an ironclad fact. The first Brian Williams works for a Canadian TV station, and the second Brian Williams works for the NBC TV network in the United States.

    If they were father and son, then “Brian Williams, Sr.” and “Brian Williams, Jr.” would also work.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In the family of John W. Rockefeller, his son was named John W. Rockefeller, Jr., and the father became John W. Rockefeller, Sr.

    Then there was begun the tradition of naming the first-born sons “John Rockefeller”, leaving him with the option of changing this to John W. Rockefeller later, if he so chose. Two descendants have picked up on this option, so they became John W. Rockefeller III and John W. Rockefeller IV.

    As far as I know, there might be a John W. Rockefeller V by now. I will leave that for you to look up.

  • Dale A. Wood

    There isn’t anything highfallutin about a man’s using “Sr.” as a suffix to his name. Here is an example, and I will just choose a respectable name for that purpose. (You can look it up to find out if this is really true or not.)
    Suppose that the father was a common man, but somehow his son became famous because of his accomplishments. For example, Edwin Aldrin. Then his son, Edwin Aldrin, Jr., became a famous astronaut, the second man to walk on the Moon.

    Hence, by introducing himself, or signing his name as, “Edwin Aldrin, Sr.” distinguishes the father from his famous son. Also, “Edwin Aldrin, Sr.” tells everyone “I am the father of Edwin Aldrin, Jr.”, and this distinguishes both of them from most of the other Edwin Aldrins in the world.

    As for the Presidents of the United States, we have had two men, father and son, named “John Adams”. Rather than using “Sr.” or “Jr.”, they distinguished the two by calling the son “John Quincy Adams”.

    Then later on, we had two with slightly-different names:
    George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.
    Also, by using appositives, some people distinguish them by saying:
    “George Bush, number 41” and “George Bush, number 43”, using the numbers of their presidencies.

    Interestingly, both of those are prime numbers, and furthermore, prime numbers that differ by two are called “prime twins”.
    As for the smaller prime twins, we have these:
    {(5, 7), (11, 13), (17, 19), (29, 31), (41, 43), (59, 61), (71, 73), (101, 103).

  • Dale A. Wood

    The designation II is used in the names of ordinary men (not royalty or popes) in the following cases.

    If John J. Johnson is named for his grandfather, great-uncle, or uncle (perhaps a deceased one, maybe killed in a war), then he becomes John J. Johnson II.

    If John J. Johnson is named for his older brother or his cousin, now deceased, he becomes John J. Johnson II. Such a thing is seldom done anymore, but if the original John J. Johnson was killed in a war, then naming the younger one “John J. Johnson II” would be a way of honoring the memory of the killed one.

    If John J. Johnson, Jr., died in infancy or early boyhood, and “John J. Johnson” was a traditional family name, then his younger brother might be named John J. Johnson II to keep the tradition going.

    By following the above traditional rules, the famous American General George Patton of World War II carried both of these names:

    George S. Patton, Jr., since his father was George S. Patton, Sr., and
    George S. Patton III, since he had another close relative named George S. Patton. I haven’t found out who that was, but that could have been his great-grandfather or great-uncle.
    Maybe Patton’s father was really George S. Patton II.

  • Joanne WIlliams

    What about birth certificates? A man is named the same as his father, with the Jr. or the III after his name on the birth certificate. Does the name on that birth certificate mean nothing?

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