‘Chairperson’ and English lexiculture

In the dark days before there were searchable databases of virtually everything, it was hard to know where exactly to look for early attestations of words. It wasn’t just blind luck, but one’s preconceptions really did strongly influence where one was likely to look, and thus where one was likely to find such things. So, for instance, the word chairperson is dated in the OED and other sources to 1971, presumably because the lexicographers who first thought to look for it saw it as the product of second-wave (1960s-70s) feminism. At the time, that assumption was reasonable enough.

But chairperson isn’t just some ordinary word – rather, it’s a word about which a lot of words have been written, largely negative. Among many people, it carries a set of cultural beliefs about language, or metalinguistic commentary, about so-called “political correctness”, gender roles, and the power of language to challenge those roles, and the perception that second-wave feminism has upset the stable balance of the earlier 20th century (HA! … but bear with me). In fact, one of the 1971 references to the word is from an article arguing against the alterations to language brought about by second-wave feminism:

1971 Israel Shenker, ‘Is it Possible for a Woman to Manhandle the King’s English?’, New York Times, Aug 29, p. 58.
Instead of turning up as chairman or chairlady, each will have been transmuted into a sexually obscure “chairperson.”

In an environment where power must be identified by gender, in particular when talking of the marked (feminine) case, chairperson is a threat, and commentary on its novelty is not politically neutral. And thus it matters a great deal, culturally speaking, whether chairperson is a novelty, a product of perceived radicalism in the present day, or whether it has a deeper history in the English language.

Now, to step back a moment:

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.

Last week I was running a very similar lecture to the one I always, on language and gender, where we talk about whether there are innate sex differences in language usage (not really), whether there are gender differences (yes, albeit highly context-dependent), blah blah blah. We talk about the myth that women talk more than men and get into some of the issues relating to social power. But that’s it. Even though it’s a topic a lot of students are interested in, I hadn’t ever come out of that session feeling as if we had learned anything in particular, or done anything out of the ordinary.

And then we found chairperson. It had ended up on the list of topics I was preparing on the subject, and when I showed the list to my class, they honed in on it right away. We actually started by investigating ‘chairman’, ‘chairwoman’, and ‘chair’, as well – all three are attested in the OED from the 17th century. ‘Chair’ as a title held by a person was surprisingly early (not just ‘he held the chair’ but ‘he was the chair’) at 1658. This alone, based on two minutes’ search of the OED, was worthwhile as a lesson to the students, because chair, too, has been the subject of some ideologically-charged metalanguage. I had thought that I might show them how we could examine the frequency of the various terms on a decade-by-decade basis. But chairperson, sitting there with its date of 1971, was far too tempting a target.

And so off we went on our lexical excursion. 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’. The second and third are from Elbert Hubbard’s The Philistine; among many other causes, Hubbard was a proud early supporter of the suffrage movement. Yet the third quotation is a sad commentary on the perception among many men (in 1902 as today) that a strong woman is by definition unattractive. In other words, chairperson appears in print for the first time in contexts commenting on first-wave feminism. In contrast to the 1970s, its relative absence as a self-identifier by first-wave feminists is notable. Of course, the fact that it was being used at all suggests that it may have been used, just not in contexts that are currently archived digitally (readers: hint hint!). Nevertheless, chairperson was clearly a stigmatized word in this first instantiation, even before feminists adopted the word widely as their own.

But the most interesting thing is not simply that chairperson is associated with cultural commentary on first-wave feminism – although I do think it’s rather fantastic that I was able to show this with such ease in class, and of course I sent the above quotations off to the OED posthaste. It’s that after 1910, 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.

The lack of any interdatings between 1910-1970 deserves some attention – why, for instance, did no feminists (apparently) use the term in the interim – its absence is certainly not due to a lack of feminists! – and why did anti-feminists (apparently) cease using it? Was it simply too rare? Four occurrences over a decade is hardly a flood of appearances in print. Was it always more associated with commentary on feminism than with feminist terminology itself? Did early feminists simply feel they had better things to do? While I don’t have any definitive answers, now we’re moving into the realm of the cultural analysis of linguistic change, not merely the history of words – which is exactly what I’m hoping my students will take from the work we’ve been doing.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: http://phrontistery.info. Blog: http://glossographia.com.

9 thoughts on “‘Chairperson’ and English lexiculture”

  1. This is great (of course) but it may be some use to you to know that you can ‘force’ Google to search for the term you entered rather than its corrections by prefacing the term with a plus sign. So, ‘+chairman’ would get you only that (though I can’t think of anything else that it might substitute if you left the plus off).

    1. Jonathan – Thanks, and I do know of that trick, and in fact, in class, once I realized it had made the ‘correction’, went back and added the +. My objection is twofold:

      1) As far as I can tell, for the Google Books searches I was doing involving ‘chairperson’, it was returning results for ‘chairman’ but NOT for ‘chairwoman’. What the hell?
      2) When Google (/Books/Scholar/News) does this, it should tell us what additional results are included. Right now you only realize it by sifting through results.

  2. What also interested me was the re-introduction of gender in the “Madame Chairperson” form of address. Would they have said “Mister Chairperson” or “Mister Chairman” do you think?

    And I wonder how widespread “Chairlady” was in usage. That’s one that I can’t remember either reading or hearing anywhere.

    1. I’m sure they would have said ‘Mister Chairman’. Even in the early 70s ‘chairperson’ was strictly used to refer to women – that is, it was a gender-neutral alternative to ‘chairwoman’ but NOT a generic gender-neutral title that could be applied to men or women. It would be very interesting to trace the origins of the truly gender-neutral ‘chairperson’ in the 70s by doing searches for phrases like “Mister Chairperson” or “He is/was the chairperson”. A very cursory search:

      Pre-1980: “he is/was the chairperson” on Google Books: 21 results vs. “she is/was the chairperson”: 50 results
      All time periods: “Mister Chairperson: 6 results vs. “Madam Chairperson”: 545 results

      Chairlady is now rare, but historically not as rare as you’d think. From 1900-1970 Google Books has 5530 results for ‘chairwoman’ and 2280 results for ‘chairlady’ (so around 2.5:1). From 1970-2010, there are 111,000 results for ‘chairwoman’ and 4310 for ‘chairlady’, so more than 25:1. So this is another piece of the puzzle – the decline of ‘chairlady’ as a term also appears (roughly, and I’d want more data and to check my other sources, blah blah blah) to be a product of second-wave feminism, alongside the reintroduction of ‘chairperson’.

  3. They “honed in on it”? Unfortunately, Google gives about the same number of instances of this as of “homed in on it”.

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