Masseuse, masseur, or massage therapist?

By Abram Herman

This article was originally published in the May/June 2012 issue of Massage & Bodywork.

The word massage was originally a French term meaning “friction of kneading.” It is believed to be derived from the Arabic massa, meaning “to touch, feel, handle.” Another possibility is that it comes from the Portuguese verb amassar, meaning “knead,” based on the Latin massa, “mass, dough.”

It’s a hot issue, with good arguments from both sides, but what’s the “correct” term?

Massage Therapist

The term massage therapist has only come into common use in more recent decades, and is primarily used in the United States. It follows a trend in the American vernacular toward replacing gender-specific terms, such as waiter or stewardess, with more gender-neutral terms like server and flight attendant. The majority of those who practice massage in the United States choose to go by the title of massage therapist, often because it’s considered to be a more legitimate term for those who practice therapeutic massage.

“The term massage therapist came into popular usage around 1980,” says Rick Rosen, founder of the Alliance for Massage Therapy Education. “In a way, this could be considered the beginning of the modern era of massage therapy. The terms masseur and masseuse are antiquated, as they refer to the much smaller field that existed before the widespread availability of formal massage education programs,” he says.

“Masseuse is uneducated, and truthfully most people don’t know the difference and don’t mean any disrespect,” says massage therapist Linda Thompson Frazier. “We have come a long way and have gained respect for our hard work, and most people respect what we do.”


Masseuse and masseur, originally French words for those who practice massage, were commonly used in the United States until the latter half of the 20th century. During that time, the term massage parlor came into use as a euphemism for a house of prostitution, eventually causing the more antiquated gender-specific terms to fall away in favor of more neutral terms like massage therapist. However, many practitioners still identify with—or at the very least, tolerate—the older titles of masseuse and masseur.

“I have worked with elite European athletes for nearly 30 years and when they call me their masseur, I’m honored. In their cultures, that is an esteemed moniker,” says John Balletto, past president of the Massage Therapy Foundation.

Daniel Cohen from California says: “All I care about is that they speak positively, make appointments regularly, and refer me to their friends—other than that they can call me anything they like. Actually, I do find it disconcerting to be called a masseuse. Look at me people, I’m a guy,” he says.

“The only things that can hurt us are the things that we give power,” says massage therapist Paul Brown from Sacramento, California. “I don’t care about trying to educate the public on silly things like this, but instead focus on providing top-notch service and bodywork. That’s how we change minds and attitudes.”