CHAIRPERSON.

Stephen Chrisomalis, an anthropologist at Wayne State University who once ran also runs the site Forthright’s Phrontistery (which I wrote about here), now also has a blog Glossographia (“Anthropology, linguistics, and prehistory”), whose latest post is a very interesting examination of the history of the word chairperson. He writes:

A couple of weeks ago I started making some open notes here about a potential student project on word histories for use in my undergraduate teaching, which I am tentatively calling the Lexiculture Project. My desired learning outcomes for this course include a) getting students to discover or awaken whatever love of language; b) to get essentially untrained (budding?) linguists to be able to ask and answer interesting questions about language and culture in topics of interest to them. While my students (mainly anthropology majors with a smattering of linguists and others) aren’t mostly ready to undertake original research in most areas, they can certainly be taught the research skills needed to investigate word histories.

Sounds like a great course! At any rate, he decided to use chairperson as a research topic, hoping to antedate the OED’s first citation from 1971 (Israel Shenker, New York Times, Aug 29, 58 “Instead of turning up as chairman or chairlady, each will have been transmuted into a sexually obscure ‘chairperson’”).

I didn’t expect much, maybe to find a few from the 60s, then move on with my demonstration of other techniques. The usual Googlery didn’t produce much of interest – not least because of the wacky metadata in Google Books and Google News Archive, producing thousands upon thousands of misdated records and more than one feisty embuggerance. (Oh, and PS, Google, when I search for chairperson do not show me results for chairman automatically.) I cursed once or twice at the Great God of Search, against my normal classroom practice (uhh … you can stop laughing now.) But Proquest, oh, sweet Proquest, how you came through for me. So instead of 1971, we have the following four early attestations:

1899 Washington Post Jul 15, pg. 6 “Indignant Womanhood”
“Madame Chairperson,” exclaimed the delegate, earnestly, “I feel the force of all that has been said concerning the necessity for us, the women of the nation, to nominate a clean candidate!”
1899 The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest Dec 1899, 10(1), pg. A32
NOTICE – Members of the East Aurora Don’t Worry Club are notified that there will be no more meetings until Mrs. Grubbins, the Chairperson, returns from the Sanatorium.
1902 The Philistine: A Periodical of Protest Sep 1902, 15(4), pg. 126
The answer is, I think, that a passion for the Chairperson is hardly possible when any moment you may be ruled out of order, and ordered to take your seat.
1910 Puck Aug 3, p. 68
“Madame Chairperson,” she shouted, “this measure is maternalism, plain and simple!”
All four of these quotations are clearly linked to first-wave feminism, the movement (to oversimplify grossly) for political rights such as the vote led by feminists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And of course (it almost goes without saying), all four instances are used to describe women – no man is described as a ‘chairperson’ until the 1970s. The first (WaPo) quotation actually is a quotation taken from the (sadly, undigitized) Detroit Journal – my Wayne State students were thrilled to find that chairperson first occurred in a Detroit publication! But the article is no feminist tract, but rather a jocular commentary on first-wave feminists, entitled ‘Indignant Womanhood’.

He goes on to say that the most interesting thing is that “I can find literally no further attestations of the word for over half a century”:

After 1910, we have no further ‘chairperson’ until 1970, when once again (as in 1899) it appeared in the Washington Post, this time associated with Betty Friedan, who used the term to describe herself. After that point, ‘chairperson’ occurs regularly up to the present, although the Corpus of Historical American English data suggest that it is being replaced by ‘chair’ as the gender-neutral form.

We live in a great age of lexicography, and I look forward to many more such discoveries.

Comments

  1. Very interesting, and his research turns up an even more obscure (and interesting) usage: maternalism.
    “Madame Chairperson,” she shouted, “this measure is maternalism, plain and simple!”
    I have not seen the word before (why not, when “paternalism” is common?). And from the abbreviated context (shouting, unveiling a hidden agenda, perhaps) one might infer that “maternalism” is not a good thing.
    What did this speaker mean by it, I wonder? Can you get Chrisomalis to investigate this for his class? It’s a lovely illustration of how investigating word histories leads down all sorts of curious paths.

  2. To go somewhat off the topic (which is fascinating):On the odd occasions I have found myself in the chair, I have insisted on “Mr. Chairman”, explaining that should a woman be in the post, she should be “Mme. Chairwoman.” I absolutely refused to be addressed personally as a chair, as I will not be sat upon, though I accept the use of the term “the Chair”.
    Interestingly, my wife is on a board of governors of a girls’ school, and the chairperson (if you must) of the group is always called “the Chairman”.

  3. OED on maternalism (draft entry June 2009):

    The attitudes and instincts characteristic of a mother; the natural behaviour of a mother towards her child. Also in extended use.
    1892 San Antonio (Texas) Daily Light 18 Feb. 2/2 The paternalism of the legislation of Texas is the rankest kind of maternalism and borders hard on old grannyism. 1921 Jrnl. Polit. Econ. 29 409 The student gets his principles in the classroom, his practice in the office, and meantime escapes from the apron strings of academic maternalism. 1960 Amer. Lit. 32 192 Fleda’s maidenly timidity.. contrasts so sharply with her highly developed instinct for maternalism. 1971 H. GUNTRIP Psychoanal. Theory I. v. 100 These splitting processes begin certainly as soon as the mother’s primary maternalism begins to fail the baby. 1987 Church Times 10 Apr. 9/2 Both paternalism and maternalism can take a wrong turning if the attitude includes a desire to keep the other person in a state of dependence.

  4. If you don’t want the “chairman” results, you can google “chairperson -chairman”.
    Ought we to say “Chairperson Mao” or is that an anachronism? I’d say not: the Chinese communist party must still have a chairperson who would nowadays have that name in English.
    I prefer chairperson to “chair”, though I might use “in the chair”.

  5. I personally say “Great Teacher, Great Leader, Great Helmsman, Supreme Commander Mao.”

  6. Helmsperson.

  7. J. W. Brewer says:

    I wonder whether the early examples are simply jokes at the expense of the suffragette ladies of the era, rather than straight reportage of actual usage. Was the Philistine perhaps a periodical not unlike Puck?

  8. Actually, if you want ONLY results for the precise word “chairperson” on Google, then put it in quotations and it will give you just that. AJP Crown’s suggestion would still let through “chair,” “chairwoman,” “chairlady” etc. Also, on Google Books advanced search you can use the “exact phrase” box with the same results.

  9. J Blakeslee says:

    A plus sign before a word (e.g. +chairperson) also tells Google to look only for that exact spelling. It even works with diacritics: +cafe only gives results without the acute accent.

  10. I wonder whether the early examples are simply jokes
    If you’ll click through to Chrisomalis’s post, he’ll tell you all about it.

  11. J. W. Brewer says:

    I actually found the Chrisomalis post rather difficult to follow (so the guy behind the Philistine was pro-suffragette – does that mean the “East Aurora Don’t Worry Club” was a real thing as opposed to a joke?). But on further reflection, what I wanted to say is that this reminds me of being totally baffled as a child by the anglicism “charlady,” which I think I first encountered in one of Paul Gallico’s books.
    And re Paul’s comment (the one above, not Gallico . . .), there are extant dialects or perhaps sociolects in which the equivalent of “Mr. Chairman” when addressing a woman is “Madam Chairman.” Chairperson of course evokes the old joke about the people who stopped using woman because of the -man suffix in favor of woperson only to then notice the -son suffix . . .

  12. Hi and thanks for the link! I’m looking forward to offering the same course starting in a few weeks with the word histories project as a major term project.
    My concern about the Google results for ‘chairperson’ are not that one cannot specify (using ‘+’) or exclude (using ‘-’). It is that an unmodified search for ‘chairperson’ returns results for ‘chairman’ but NOT those for ‘chairwoman’. Obviously based on usage frequency, but equally obviously wrongheaded.
    One small point: the Phrontistery remains active at its home where it’s been since 2006: http://phrontistery.info.

  13. Thanks for the new link; I’ll fix it in the post.

  14. does that mean the “East Aurora Don’t Worry Club” was a real thing as opposed to a joke?
    Yes. Don’t Worry Philosophy by Theodore F. Seward. Their membership emblems featured good luck symbols: horseshoe, four-leaf clover, wishbone, and star ship Enterprise (actually, some kind of Plains Indian thing), inside a swastika, making them now collectible by the wrong sort of people.

  15. It would be interesting to explore the starting points for other gender-neutral words and phrases, most of which also started around 1970 along with the feminist movement. For example, increased use of “he or she,” “his or hers,” the gradual introduction of “they” as a singular gender-neutral pronoun, “actresses” becoming “actors,” “firemen” becoming “firefighters,” “Ms.,” “mankind” becoming “humankind,” etc.

  16. Ought we to say “Chairperson Mao” or is that an anachronism?
    In composing a letter, one would write “Cher Mao”. And the head of a committee is addressed as “Cher Man” or “Chere woman” (previously “Charlady”) as the gender may be.

  17. Trond Engen says:

    In composing a letter, one would write “Cher Mao”.
    Or “Cher Leader”.

  18. “Actresses” becoming “actors” didn’t take off in the USA to the extent that it did in Britain (the Guardian for example calls them all “actors”, but not the New York Times). I don’t know how the rest of the English-speaking world reacted. It’s got logic behind it, and its equivalent, “sculptress”, (a mainly British term?) was a hideous word; but to see Marilyn Monroe described as an actor makes me think of a reworked version of Some Like It Hot.

  19. Yes, it would make more sense with Marilyn Manson in the leading role.

  20. I know the topic has already been churned here and elsewhere, but I don’t think I have chimed in yet. What is the world is hideous about “sculptress” ? Do you take equal offense at “sorceress”, “mistress” and “princess” ? What should Diana have been called instead: “that woman” ? (It wouldn’t suprise me to hear she was referred to in that way by certain older members of the royal family).

  21. Sculptress wasn’t ever used enough to make it very familiar and it makes it sound as if there is little precedent for a woman carving statues. “Princess” is a great example of an -ess name that works. I always call Diana “Princess Di” as I understand Prince Charles did — something like that, maybe it was “Princess, die”.

  22. Wordlovers, one of your own has passed from our midst: rest in peace Tony Judt, both literate and humane.

  23. Yes, he’ll be much missed. What a terrible way to end your life.

  24. John Emerson says:

    I’m just reporting that I’m alive and well. My primary computer died and my ISP refuses to accept my backup computer. I have an hour or two on the internet every day or two. And some of that time is spent problem solving.
    I’ve become unpleasantly computer-dependent on the computer since I first learned to use Windows in 2000 or so, and it’s a tremendous time drain. So the up side is that I’ve been reading a lot more.
    I should be back in touch in a week or so.

  25. “What is the world is hideous about “sculptress” ? ”
    The “sculpt” part is awkward and clanky. Adding “ress” just makes it worse by juxtaposing it with a feminine-specific suffix.
    It makes her sound like a sculpin.

  26. I thought you must be in transit between Minnesota and the west coast. Sorry about your machine, but it could be worse — or at least different: Studiolum’s computer is currently infested with ants.

  27. I should be back in touch in a week or so.
    Thanks for checking in!

  28. It’s astonishing how quickly WiPe articles on people are updated to include their death dates.
    Something the English WiPe says about Judt got me thinking:

    In a review of Judt’s Reappraisals: Reflections on the Forgotten Twentieth Century, Jonathan Freedland writes that Judt has put conscience ahead of friendship during his life, and has demanded the same courage in others.

    I can guess what that’s supposed to mean: political conscience must take precedence over loyalty to individual people. An admirable principle, in its way. But I also admire the other guy who said in effect: “if I had to decide between loyalty to my country or to a friend, I hope I would have the courage to choose my friend”.
    But I see a different, non-binary aspect here, and have been thinking about it for a long time – even worrying about it. To me, friendship is very closely involved with conscience and responsibility. Once I regard someone as a friend, I cannot bring myself to cut them out of my life once and for all, no matter what they do. Of course it’s hard when they do something that is directed against me, but I think it’s wrong to go for so-called “closure” and “political conscience” as resolutions.
    I’m not a masochist, so if someone has wronged me I’m not going to seek out their company every day. But the most common case that preoccupies me is when friends seem to be ruining their lives, say with drugs, or by selfish fighting with their wives and making life hell for their kids etc. Many people seem to have no problem discarding relationships with people whose behavior has turned from plain-vanilla to problematic. I just can’t do that – not because I think I can “help them”, but because I think it’s selfish. I sometimes wonder whether this attitude of mine has do with the fact that I don’t associate with plain-vanilla people very much. If I did, I might find it easier to switch ice-cream parlors without a second thought.

  29. I’m with you, Stu.

  30. Good to hear that, Jim. Doesn’t surprise me – it’s a major theme of your book, as I read it.

  31. But the metaphor of the ice-cream parlor is unfortunate … I wondered whether I would regret it, and sure enough !

  32. Yeah, the more I think about that quote the more I want to know how it translates to reality for people who don’t think like us. I can imagine it’s the right attitude for some, but they probably occupy different milieus.

  33. I think one major difference is that the Judt people espouse doing something for the good of the community even though it may have adverse effects on friends. It’s an ill-disguised form of utilitarianism. The “I hope I will decide to betray my country” people don’t believe that considerations of politics or “my country” (in the sense of patriotic sentiment) are necessarily conducive to the good of the community.
    As for the non-binaries, we’re actually concerned with something completely different, which is neither “doing something” nor “not doing anything”, nor is it based on suspicion of institutions and motives. This different thing is the moral obligation of the ties that bind, even when they dig into your flesh.

  34. rootlesscosmo says:

    I also admire the other guy
    @Grumbly Stu: E. M. Forster.

  35. I don’t think he meant it’s the correct attitude in all circumstances. Surely it refers to his being critical of the Israeli government? In that case he was making a distinction between the state of Israel and its government that a lot of people — some of his friends & relatives included, possibly — may not have felt it was necessary to make. Until fairly recently, I didn’t do it myself.
    It also doesn’t necessarily mean that you must put conscience ahead of every relationship you have at all times.

  36. Thanks, rootless. I had the feeling it was a writer I liked. It will soon be time to read Howard’s End again, and Passage to India.

  37. Tom Clark knew Forster.

  38. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that you must put conscience ahead of every relationship you have at all times.
    Crown, that sentence, and that sentiment, seem very familiar somehow. Didn’t you write something very like it in another comment thread, long ago ?
    Despite appearances, I don’t intend to say anything about Judt here, whom I haven’t read and know nothing about. Even though I wrote “the Judt people”, I was just taking off from the idea in that WiPe passage. It could have been about anyone, or no one.

  39. Tom Clark knew Forster
    !! Then he must be somewhat older than even I. I can’t find “Forster” from the search box on his site.

  40. He met Forster when he was a grad student at Cambridge in the early ‘sixties. It was George Plimpton or Allen Ginsberg who introduced him (I can’t remember which), took him to Forster’s house. I’m not sure he knew him that well, but I expect he’ll tell you about Forster if you ask him — he’s a very nice guy.
    Crown, that sentence, and that sentiment, seem very familiar somehow. Didn’t you write something…
    I can’t remember. Being able to include shades of gray is very important to me, so I might have mentioned something similar. Anyway, thanks for paying attention.

  41. Surely it refers to his being critical of the Israeli government?
    Probably. Which, if it cost him friends, was indeed admirable. (Friends, community, politics — the concepts morph after working long hours to serve homemade ice cream at farmer’s market in a town of five hundred.)
    Then he must be somewhat older than even I.
    “Than me” please, Stu. Or at least “than I am.” The Judt people say “than I.”
    I’m not entirely joking, either. The worst thing I’ve ever read of Judt’s was a short piece on language in a recent NYRB. Not the place to start — although start you should, Stu. Judt was (sigh) wonderful. Here, one of his more popular pieces.

  42. Oh, I’ve been known to let fly with a “than I” when I was in a particularly donnish mood.
    You people must be among the most civilized group of commenters on the internet. It’s an honor to be associated with you. This whole discussion of the Forster quote and being non-binary is making me think (a painful yet enjoyable process).

  43. Oh, I’ve been known to let fly with a “than I” when I was in a particularly donnish mood.
    Me too. And thank you, Hat.
    This different thing is the moral obligation of the ties that bind, even when they dig into your flesh.
    Have you read any Javier Marias? Because that’s the opening theme of the second novel in his trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow. I say “opening theme,” because I’ve only read thirty pages, but I can’t recommend the first book highly enough. Hat will second the recommendation, I’m sure.
    Also, I like the way you put that.

  44. Yes, I should post on Javier Marías sooner rather than later—a wonderful writer (for whom I have jamessal to thank).

  45. Yes, I should post on Javier Marías sooner rather than later—a wonderful writer (for whom I have jamessal to thank)
    I hope you put in a word for the translator, is it not ?
    The WiPe on Marías contains the curious information:

    His mother died when Javier was 26 years old.

    What is one supposed to infer from that ? Am I missing something ?

  46. What’s wrong with sculptress is that it’s an obvious corruption of sculptrix, the proper word.
    As is well known to the Hattics, though, most of Martin’s 1970s-isms have much longer histories either as proposals (“Ms.”) or in actual use (singular “they”, which goes back centuries).

  47. Artist, painter, designer, architect, musician and so on aren’t subdivided by sex; there’s no necessity for sculptors to be. Besides, the idea of artists being either painters or sculptors is very out-of-date. The medium is no longer the message with art, people move back and forth according to the job at hand (this is partly because learning a skill is a much less important requirement for producing a satisfactory piece of work). I predict the word sculptor will stop being used altogether quite soon, everyone will be simply an artist, I can think of very few living people of any note who would expect to be classified as sculptors. Anthony Caro is one, but he’s quite old. The youngest I can think of is Anthony Gormley (b. 1950). Rachel Whiteread (b. 1963) is listed in Wikipedia as “an artist best known for her sculptures”. You would have to be making a nasty sarcastic put-down to refer to her a sculptress.

  48. “learning a skill is a much less important requirement than it used to be for producing a satisfactory piece of work”

  49. I hope you put in a word for the translator, is it not ?
    Indeed—she’s fantastic.

  50. Not that I’ve read anything by Marías in English, or even German for that matter. I just wanted to remind you that most of us don’t read Marías, Dostoyevsky etc. in the original. The status of translators has been upgraded.
    I had just seen a film on tv, and was thinking about how the structure of the film credits have changed over time – when they come at the end of a film, at any rate. The “main actors” have been moving farther and farther down the list. That makes sense, since there are so many highly skilled people needed to get a good film made that the actors are just part of the whole enterprise, not the most important one.

  51. Yes, but practically nobody reads the end credits in the cinema: it’s a mad dash to get the car out of the parking lot/ catch the next metro/ go and get a drink etc. And on commercial television, they’re usually cut off altogether.

  52. Or the film is sped up so that it would be humanly impossible to read the tiny names zipping past. I’m surprised the Screen Actors Guild doesn’t complain.

  53. On some German tv channels the end credits are not shown at all – that’s when at the end of a film they show a kind of framed scene with minimal information next to it – the director, say. (I have never learned which channels are which). On arte and some other channels, though, you see the end credits.
    After older films here, the credits are sometimes rolled down so fast you can barely read them. But you get ARD, ZDF usw. in BLB, right, bruessel ?
    It was Brokeback Mountain that I had been watching again. I was following the credits to see which actor was which – I read recently that Heath Ledger had died. It was only because I recognized Gyllenhaal’s name that I knew Ledger was the other one. I don’t really care about good-lookin’ actors (no, really !), it’s the story and the characters that I found so deftly deployed. So Texas in the 60′s, my God … Reason enough for them to head out to Brokeback whenever they could, apart from the cuddly stuff.

  54. Oh, sure. You watch movies for the story and the characters. We’ve heard that one before.

  55. Grumbly, have you read Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of Brokeback? It’s fabulous. I tried to pull it up just now, but my NYRB subscription has lapsed. Maybe someone else can send it to you.
    I should post on Javier Marías
    Ooh, please.

  56. have you read Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of Brokeback?
    Nope. Generally I’m leery of receiving opinions about films I like a lot. I especially want this one to be my own secret province. (Well, then why did you bring it up, Grumbly, if you’re so smart ??) Maybe I would look at the review, peeping cautiously through my fingers, if I had it.
    Would you want Grumbly commenting publicly on something precious to you ? There, you see ?

  57. I get ARD and ZDF, but no other German channels, Arte only in French.
    You probably know this already, but if you need any information about films, imdb.com is the place to go to.

  58. imdb.com
    Thanks, I didn’t know that. I’m not a film buff. I hardly ever go to the movies. Instead, I sometimes watch a tv film or a DVD.
    I tried out imdb.de too, and it worked ! You know how the Germans love to trivialize the titles of films they dub, so one can rarely guess the original title.

  59. Thank heavens Emerson is unharmed; I feared foul play at the hands of Dravidian nationalists.
    In the event of “IP recognition” problems, I usually take a laptop to the public library and connect through their wifi in air conditioned comfort. When I’m traveling I check email the same way, sometimes just parked in front of a library building–they never turn it off. Very few states do not have hotspots around their libraries, Missouri is the only one I know of. Forget McDonald’s though. They might have a big Wifi sign on the door, but they will want a credit card number.

  60. Grumbly, apparently my subscription is still good for another week or so, but the NYRB website, newly designed, has only a truncated version of the Brokeback review. They say they’re working to fix the problem. Until then, I’ll paste a nice snippet from Mendelsohn’s review of Capote, to give you a sense of whether or not he’ll do damage to your baby:

    Much will be written about the portrayal of Truman Capote by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and rightly so: it is a marvelous performance. More, it is a performance, rather than an act of mimicry. Hoffman wisely avoids “doing” Capote: he provides enough of the well-known mannerisms and vocal tics to authenticate his portrayal of a familiar public figure, but what makes his rendition so satisfying is that he manages to convey a coherent character—selfish, amusing, ambitious, sentimental, and, in the end, ruthless—in the terse drama the filmmakers have created, one that can stand quite apart from the real-life story. Much of his achievement, like much of the film in general, is owed to the well-researched and tautly written script of Dan Futterman, who, perhaps because he himself is an actor with substantial stage and film credits, knows when to let the actors’ faces speak—knows when reactions are as telling as the actions or words that provoke them.
    Indeed, for a film about a writer, this one is remarkably unafraid of long silences. Again and again, the director lets his camera linger on Hoffman’s face (here as baby-plump and smoothly blond as Capote’s was) at critical moments during the writer’s involvement with his story—the first time Capote lays eyes on Perry Smith (who as a youth was nearly crippled by a motorcycle accident), hobbling up the steps of the Kansas courthouse to be arraigned; the moment when Capote, alone with the four caskets of the murder victims in a local funeral home, forces himself to open one of them and look inside because he knows he’ll have to write about what he sees there. The delicacy of Hoffman’s performance allows you to glimpse the writer’s interior reactions. You see the moment at which Capote’s strange sympathy for Smith first takes hold; you see the conflict between the effeminate aesthete and the grimly ambitious author. There have been many films about writers writing, and generally they resort to a kind of clichéd visual shorthand to convey the agonies of what people like to call the creative process: pieces of paper being yanked in frustration out of typewriters, crumpled, and tossed into wastebaskets. Capote is the only movie I know of that comes close to suggesting successfully what the complex process of creating a literary work actually looks like.

  61. a nice snippet from Mendelsohn’s review of Capote
    <*Harrumph*> Well, I grudgingly have to admit that it’s a well-observed and well-written snippet. I guess I can let down my guard this once.

  62. His guard is down! Get him!

  63. Ha ! I had my fingers crossed !

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