In this season of semi-jollity, it's tough for anybody called an "ombudsman" to get into the spirit of things. Start with the title, an ugly import from Scandinavia. Most people can't pronounce it much less figure out what it's supposed to mean. So it is invariably awkward at the annual Christmas gatherings to be introduced around as an ombudsman: "Say what?"

That may be why newspapers hung that label on us. It sows confusion among the customers. Since they don't know what an ombudsman is or does, they can invent for him any role they choose. It's like dialing 911: few people have burglars in the bedroom; they want to get a cat out of the tree, make a husband stop snoring or get directions to Kansas.

Among newspaper readers, a large faction obviously is of the opinion that "ombudsman" is a Norwegian word for telephone operator. For the countless admirers of Bob Levey (334-7276),Mike Causey (334-7916) and other distinguished authors, I have a piece of advice: dial it yourself.

Another large faction is into research of one sort or another. A cook has lost a favorite recipe clipped out of The Post in the past five years. Will the ombudsman find it and send her a copy? Junior Jones is doing a ninth-grade paper on the Venus of Laussel. Will the ombudsman look it up? Over the sound of tinkling glass, a celebrant wants to know if Mondale got 46 electoral votes in 1984. Answer: No, and goodbye. Of the tens of thousands of journalism students in the United States, fully half (it seems on a bad day) need instant interviews for essays on newspaper ombudsmen that must be completed within 24 hours. The opening question: What is an ombudsman ?

This near-universal ignorance is understandable. There is no common definition of the job; ombudsmen do what their employers hire them to do. The Detroit Free Press has just installed an ombudsman whose duties, among others, include entering articles and pictures in newspaper contests, which now outnumber beauty pageants. The new ombudsman of the Fresno Bee is also the "editorial training coordinator," whatever that signifies. The Washington Post's ombudsman, as the promotion ads say, is supposed to deal with criticism of the paper's news coverage.

The phrase that stands out in the ad is "criticism of The Post." It unleashes disgruntled subscribers whose paper has wound up on the roof or in the pansy bed, classified advertisers whose message ran on the wrong day or whose bill was screwed up by the computer, allergy sufferers who can't stand those perfumed ads in the Magazine and putative censors who dislike the "advertorials" of the city's lobbyists.

Not all the calls and letters are misdirected. A grieving daughter wants to know why it was necessary to publish in her father's obituary a 13-year-old brush with the law: "I will never forgive you for that." An organization of homosexuals remarks on a story quoting a teenager's boast of beating up on gays: "By printing {the} story ... The Washington Post condones this heinous violence." The Style section is accused of censorship and pusillanimity for seeming not "to allow the use of any word ... {e.g., lesbian or bitch} that will put the female sex in an unfavorable light."

A man asks why we frequently describe killers and other miscreants as "loners." It is a form of bigotry he says: "I know what I speak of, for I am a loner. Except for my children, I have had no visitor in 13 years. ... My neighbors see a fat man of late middle age living in a running-down house, driving an old truck at odd times ... probably never guessing I'm going to sit in a parking lot for something to do. ... Aloneness is a terrible injury to the soul. To that injury you add the insult of imputed evil. Unfair. Few loners turn their frustration on society." A Hispanic editor asks that we stop referring to "undocumented immigrants" as "illegal aliens" because the latter term has a bad ring to it.

In other parts of the world direct action is sometimes used to resolve matters of this kind. The press in India referred to Sikh secessionists as "terrorists." The Sikhs sent a message to editors: ban the label or be killed. It was banned.

That is more effective than the mealy-mouthed intercessions of "ombudsmen." But that need not be the case. Give us a decent title, and we'll get the job done. Czar has a nice ring to it. So do gold rubles.