« How to pronounce it -- 2 | Main | Enormities »

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.



Posted by John McIntyre at 4:51 PM | | Comments (7)


This is similar to the use of singular "they/their" with reference to a person of unidentified gender. It's a usage that neatly fills what would otherwise be a void in the language and has a long history in English, going back to Shakespeare and beyond, but it frequently elicits howls of protest from those who are politically opposed to gender neutrality and don't bother to examine the evidence.

If the desk says the chair is OK, that's good enough for me.

I'm not politically opposed to gender neutrality, I'm opposed to ruining the language for spurious gender neutrality. Whether in the Bible or the U.S. Constitution, I always understood that I was included in terms like "man" and "mankind." (Of course, I'm young enough to have the privilege of making that assumption.) But when I delivered afternoon newspapers in junior high, I hated being called the paperboy when paper carrier wasn't much longer and was more accurate.

I never thought about the analogy to "throne" for "sovereign." Next time, please give me a reasonable explanation like that and we won't have to waste 30 years fighting about it.

Not sure about the 'throne' analogy. While one may (if so entitled) ascend to the throne -- that is, assume regnal office -- it's not a normal metonymic equivalent for the actual holder of that office or the exercise of its authority, except perhaps obliquely in fixed phrases such as 'the power behind the throne'.

But I entirely agree that the 'chair' usage is unobjectionable, except to the unimaginative.

I am reminded of when one of my professors of Middle English was elected a Fellow of a residential college. She was asked what the feminine form of "Fellow" was and was able to cite a 13th-century text in which "fellow" (whatever the medieval spelling was) refers to a woman.

I don’t anything in particular to object to in it ...

Come again?

Omitted word "see" supplied. Sorry.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected