gor[b] Paul Gorbould: Words and Pictures


Is “chairman” sexist?

Soon after creating the short-lived Chairman Mayo blog, I found an completely unrelated reason to dig into the etymology of the word "Chairman". An online group was choosing a leader, and this question was raised: is "chairman" a term that is sexist, or at least gender-specific?Most people on the forum thought that it was, and prefered "chair" or "chairperson." At least one, a woman, was really offended by the political correctitude of the latter. Here's what she said:

Chair manager. That's what it stands for. Not man who chairs. Hence, chairperson is and always will be silly. I think we're all reasonable, intelligent people - we can see that "chairman" is not a sexist term used to oppress women .... Chairperson is just silly, and not in a fun way, but in a way that came from the "Let's never offend anybody ever. Any references to "man" ever must be changed to "person", unless it's "woman" in which case we'll use womyn.

Chair manager? I'd never heard that, so I did some digging into the etymology of chairman.

From a cursory search, I found no reference to 'man' being short for "manager," and a little to support it coming from "man". Obviously there's a separate debate over whether "man" as a suffix is sexist.

My first stop was the Canadian Oxford Dictionary:

chairman→ noun (pl. -men)
1. a person chosen to preside over a meeting.

As will become a pattern, there's nothing to specify that it must be a man, but that doesn't prove the opposite either. The key observation is that the plural is "Chairmen" - the plural of man; there's no obvious connection between "men" and "managers".

Next stop, the mother of all dictionaries, ye OED:

a. The occupier of a chair of authority; spec. the person who is chosen to preside over a meeting, to conduct its proceedings, and who occupies the chair or seat provided for this function.Chair

A chairman or chairwoman: usu. intended as an alternative that avoids sexual definition. Cf. CHAIR n. 9b.

Hence {sm}chairpersonship = CHAIRMANSHIP.

Not much of use, but note the recognition that there is often a sexual definition associated with it.

Then: Online Etymology Dictionary

c.1225, from O.Fr. chaire, from L. cathedra "seat" (see cathedral). Figurative sense of "authority" was in M.E., of bishops and professors. Meaning "office of a professor" (1816) is extended from the seat from which a professor lectures (c.1449). Meaning "seat of a person presiding at meeting" is from 1647. Chairman is first attested 1654; chairwoman 1699; chairperson 1971.

Interesting word origins on the physical seat here. And it confirms that "Chairperson" is a modern invention, but obviously "chairwoman" goes back farther than predicted; to this I would ascribe some continuing sense that "man" was seen as gender-specific prior to the modern period.

Then I dutifully went to my workplace bible, the CBC Language Guide:

To avoid sexist language (e.g., referring to a woman as a “chairman”), the CBC prefers the neutral and increasingly common noun “chair” in general contexts:She’s been the board’s chair for the past two years.
He was appointed chair of the committee in 2003.

Another option is to pick a different word, such as “head.”

Chair is also fine as a verb:

She chaired the meeting.
chairman, chairwoman, chairperson

Although “chair” is preferred, it’s OK to use “chairman” or “chairwoman” if the sex of the person is known.

The term “chairperson” is less common than “spokesperson.” It’s also unnecessary (unless transcribing direct quotations) because “chair” is shorter and equally neutral.

Warning: It’s inconsistent to use “chairman” for men and “chair” for women in the same news story. So pick one form and stick with it from beginning to end.

CBC is no authority on etymology, but again substantiates that there is a common perception of gender-specificity, and that people may have a problem with that.

This gets supported in my last source, the Wiki entry:

ChairChair and chairperson are gender-neutral terms describing the same position, with chairman or chairwoman denoting the gender of an incumbent. While chairperson dates from the 1970s, the use of chair (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) to refer to someone in charge of a meeting dates from as early as 1658.

Also Wiki's non-sexist language entry:

A business might advertise that it is looking for a new chair or chairperson, rather than chairman, which gender-neutral language advocates feel would imply that only a man would be acceptable for the position. Some advocates of gender-neutral language see it as unobjectionable to use gender-specific terms provided they are equally applied. For instance (continuing the example), one could refer to a male in such a position as a chairman, provided that a female would be referred to by the equivalent term chairwoman. Others claim, however, that the sex of the occupant of the chair is irrelevant and thus chairperson or chair are the only acceptable terms. (It is perhaps worth nothing that traditionally the term chairman has explicitly included females, such a person being addressed as Madam Chairman rather than Mr Chairman.)

Interesting point on Madam Chairman - obviously not everyone takes offense, nor sees it as gender specific. But I think it's rather outweighed by discussion of those who might.

Anyhow, no mention of "manager" anywhere. If anyone finds such a reference, I'd be interested to learn about it. Anyone?

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  1. If one is to visit the online etymology dictionary one can see that the use of “man” as “adult male” is relatively late, and it refers typically to human beings as a whole.


    This would perhaps suggest that, no, the term is not sexist, and for people to believe it is proves nothing more than to illuminate their ignorance on the history and meaning of words.

  2. That’s a very good point, Bob, and something I skirted around when I wrote “Obviously there’s a separate debate over whether ‘man’ as a suffix is sexist.”

    There are a few interesting points raise in the definition you link to. There were gender-specific terms for “man” in Old English (wer and wif) and Latin (homo vs. vir), but they were merged almost a millennium ago into a single construct. I suspect that would make it a neutral (inclusive) construct, but who’s to say? Perhaps that’s when people (and language) started excluding women.

    As you mention, the conception of “man” as “adult male” may be “relatively late”, but the date cited in the link is C.1000 – over 1,000 years ago, which (to most people) is a hell of a long time.

    Even gender-specific terms like chairwoman (1699) have been around a long time, so I tend to go easy on people whose “ignorance of history” means they don’t look beyond common parlance over the past few centuries.

    History aside, there’s still the issue of perception and sensitivity (something that people who loathe political correctness often scoff at.) If, for the past 100 years, a word has been perceived as being discriminatory, then it’s going to hurt someone regardless of historical accuracy. If the majority of people think “man” means “men” – even if they are wrong – it’s only responsible to seek a term that won’t be misconstrued. Referring the insulted to Chaucer won’t help much, even if you are right.

    How long does a word – or its common understanding, even if it isn’t the original one – have to exist before it becomes a fact? It’s an interesting debate between the historians and the sociologists, probably with no answer. I wish I knew a linguist.

  3. I have heard that the ‘man’ in Chairman derives from ‘manu’…Latin for ‘hand’
    The implied meaning being ‘the one who holds (resides over) the chair’
    Not been able to check the veracity on this though

  4. a really great homepage! i’m a big fan of your stuff although i’m just 16!

  5. tht is ‘manis’…latin for holder..it is not about gender

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