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.