The G8 summit in Gleneagles in July 2005 resulted in this term of the diplomatic trade popping briefly into wider public view. A splendid amalgam of French and Tibetan, it literally means “under Sherpa”, in reference to the mountain guides and porters of the Himalayas.
It refers to the permanent officials and experts of nations who prepare to hold a summit meeting, who work behind the scenes to give advice and prepare position papers. The most senior officials, one for each national delegation, are the sherpas, who hold regular meetings in the period before a summit meeting. Each is supported by a number of sous-sherpas and by even more lowly assistants called sous-sous-sherpas.
A report in an American newspaper in 1997 remarked that: “Like the guides who carry packs of supplies up the Himalayas, the sherpas for each country do the heavy lifting all year to prepare the economic and political communiques and statements for the meetings.” Subscriber Thomas P Thornton tells me that sherpa was in use in Washington in the time of Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s (the Oxford English Dictionary has its first example of sherpa from 1980). Others suggest it may be even older. However, sous-sherpa seems to be a more recent development.
All the early examples are from either the USA or Canada, which made me wonder whether sous-sherpa was invented in French, or was an English joke on the model of sous-chef. But Le Petit Robert knows the diplomatic sense of sherpa (“Personne qui participe à la préparation d’un sommet politique ou qui y représente un chef d’État”), so it may indeed have originally been a French term.
If Edson doesn’t have that information, he will ask for help from “sous sherpas,” or assistant sherpas, anxiously waiting outside the official meeting room. The sous sherpas will then hurtle the president’s request to Washington, where staff members will be at the ready to return information equally fast. The other G-8 sherpas will rely on their assistants and capitals for such backup support as well.
The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 1 June 2004
The meeting will be led by eight “sherpas”, the chief officials from the G8 leading industrialised countries charged with preparing the communique for world leaders to sign at the summit in Gleneagles next Friday. Sitting behind them will be their assistants, known in this corner of officialdom as sous-sherpas.
The Guardian, 30 June 2005