Permission to address the chair
When the House of Representatives moved a week ago to adopt gender-neutral language in its proceedings, in part by replacing the terms chairman and chairwoman with chair, there was a predictable outburst of indignation.
Newfangled changes. Political correctitude. People aren’t furniture. Harumph, harumph, harumph. You can get a fair sampling of such responses here.
But as is so frequently the case when people are firmer in their opinions than in their information. It turns out that chair as a term for the presiding person has a long pedigree, parallel to the use of throne as an equivalent of the sovereign.
The Oxford English Dictionary records usages from the 17th century: “The Chair behaves himself like a Busby amongst so many school-boys..and takes a little too much on him” and “It was referred to Me by this Honourable Chair, to examine and produce the Experiment”; in the 19th century, “It can hardly be conceived that the Chair would fail to gain the support of the House”; and, more currently, from 1976, “Seventeen members of the university's Department of Linguistics, including the department's distinguished chair, Calvert Watkins, had written a letter to the Crimson on the subject of the students' action.”
The substitution of the gender-neutral chair for chairman or chairwoman has been common in American universities for more than 30 years, and has grown increasingly common elsewhere. I don’t see anything in particular to object to in it, and certainly not on the ground that it is some kind of reckless innovation.