Advertisement
John McIntyre

The chair will be recognized

Writing at the Chronicle of Higher Education's Lingua Franca blog, Anne Curzan wonders why the succinct, gender-neutral term chair for head of a department or committee gets scorned or disregarded. It has, after all, been in fairly wide use in colleges, universities, and organizations over the past forty years. But resistance persists. 

The Associated Press Stylebook deplores it, along with chairperson, which we can lay to the AP Stylebook's unthinking clinging to fusty old-fogeyism, to habit rather than thought. 
A couple of responses to Professor Curzan's post are instructive: not quite with the trembling of empurpled wattles one often witnesses in these operations, but old-school peeving nonetheless. 
One reader, Brian Able Ragen, remarks at some length: "Some of us object to being transformed into pieces of furniture. And as the 'man' in chairman becomes not 'man,' but 'mun,' it seems like hunting for grounds for offense to object to it. But if the term is to be forbidden categorically, let's at least replace it with a word that refers to a person. 'Leader' may be too grand. 'Convener' might do it. Or 'speaker.' In any case, 'Chairman' and all it derivatives, only makes sense if we are willing to call the other members of whatever board at which the august 'Chair' sits as 'Benchers,' as they do at the Inns of Court. To be consistent, however, if the head of the department is the 'Chair,' its members should just be 'benches.' "
One wonders how the president's cabinet secretaries bear up under the disgrace of being called furniture. 
In fact, as Mr. Ragen of the ponderous jocularity is likely aware, synechdoche and metonymy are regularly put to service in using objects to label persons. The Queen of England (whose government is "the Crown") is assisted by a court official commonly known as Black Rod, from his staff of office. 
Another reader, jlierman, chimes in with this comment: "Body parts are metaphors, and have occurred naturally in speech for thousands of years, at least in Indo-European languages. 'Chair' is not a metaphor, at least not recognizably. It is clunky. That is why it is never used without indoctrination, and it is also why a 'style' guide disinterested in indoctrination rejects it."
How chair is not a metaphor, when it is plainly not literal but a standing in for a person, appears to require further elucidation. And though the writer finds it "clunky," its clunkiness may not be universally acknowledged. In any event, jlierman's aesthetic preferences in language are no more binding on us than his tastes in food, drink, or neckwear. 
"Indoctrination" is what gives the game away. We would not use chair except under compulson from those damned feminists, infecting good, plain English with their damnable political correctitude. 
On this count, the historical record, which the peeververein seldom appear to consult, despite their professed devotion to tradition, undercuts their opposition.

Chair (n.) has been in use representing the seat occupied by a presiding person, or the office itself, often as a synonym for chairman, since 1659. The Oxford English Dictionary cites T. Burton's Diary from that year: "The Chair behaves himself like a Busby amongst so many school-boys." 

Chair (v.) has been in use since 1761 in the sense of "to place in a seat of authority" and since 1921 in the sense of "to direct or preside over a meeting," according to the OED.

The latest edition of the Associated Press Stylebook is out (I have just ordered a copy). It has many useful elements as a guide to writing for publication, and it has many pieces of advice that are outdated, misguided, and flat wrong. In the fall, when the editors have got their breath back, I'll resume prodding them, and chair will be on the list. 
 

Advertisement