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Musical Chairs: What Janet Yellen’s New Title Really Means

chair

When Janet Yellen was confirmed as leader of the Federal Reserve Board, she changed the title of her position from chairman to chair. Though this shocked the media, who were both elated and censorious, the term chair has been used in this sense for a very long time. Since the 1650s, chair has referred to “the person occupying a seat of office.” Around the same time the term chairman began to refer to the same position. Only 50 years later, chairwoman is recorded in a translation from Erasmus, though it took this appellation another 100 years to be recognized as an official title. The gender-neutral chairperson entered English centuries later in the 1970s.

However chairperson never really took off; its usage peaked in the mid-90s and has slid in popularity since then. It appears that chair, rather than chairperson, has been adopted as the gender-neutral term of choice, but it’s difficult to determine the usage of this sense of the word chair because this word also has other common meanings, namely the piece of furniture. Anecdotally though, in the late 20th century, some governmental positions quietly transitioned from chairman to chair, often coinciding with the appointment of the first woman in a particular role. When Laura D’Andrea Tyson was appointed as Chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers in 1993, she was commonly referred to as chairwoman in the media, though the Council’s website officially lists her as a “Former Chair,” along with all the previous leaders of both genders.

Yellen is often referred to by the longer honorific Madam Chair and seems to have embraced, or at least acquiesced to, that moniker. But this brings up another interesting example of gendered titles: Upon Rosemary Barkett’s appointment as Florida Supreme Court Justice in 1985, she inadvertently transformed the nomenclature of the entire bench by stating her personal preference for her individual title. According to the Florida Supreme Court website, Justice Barkett “did not like the title ‘Madam Justice Barkett’: She said that she was not married and did not qualify for the other definition of ‘Madam.’ As a result, Barkett announced that she would be called simply ‘Justice Barkett.’ The other Justices of the Court quickly followed suit by dropping the ‘Mr.’ from their titles.”

Other political honorifics help governmental figures escape the gender debate: senator, representative, speaker, governor, mayor, etc. But it’s unlikely that rancor around the more specific terms will end anytime soon. Though some gender-neutral forms, like flight attendant, comedian, and bartender, are permanent parts of the lexicon, others resist change like actor/actress and waiter/waitress. Recently, though, even male chairmen have been referred to by the gender-neutral chair. Current leader of the Council of Economic Advisers, Jason Furman, gets called by either title depending on the publication: chairman in the New York Times and chair in the Washington Post. Perhaps chair will be an unmarked title one day.

This leaves us wondering what other handles may be shortened. Will spokesperson become spokes? Alderman become alder? Postman become post?

17 Comments

  1. Kitty Stokes -  September 3, 2016 - 6:03 pm

    Are the honorifics Mr.Mrs.Miss Ms. Out of date now? My children don’t seem to use them anymore in mailing letters.

    Reply
  2. Some random person -  May 9, 2016 - 1:46 pm

    What the heck? It sounds really boring and stupid… Sorry but not sorry! :)

    Reply
  3. Finn -  November 22, 2015 - 11:20 pm

    Fave game

    Reply
    • Hen -  November 22, 2015 - 11:20 pm

      Same here

      Reply
  4. LoneStarNot -  February 27, 2015 - 6:21 pm

    spokesman: speaker, rep, representative, mouthpiece
    alderman: councilor
    postman: courier
    fully manned: fully staffed, fully covered, fully teamed
    mankind: society, people
    he or she: they, s/he
    him or her: them, hir (rare)

    Agreed emjayay, it’s nice to have the choice to omit gender when it’s not intended.

    Reply
    • Richard Whiting -  November 22, 2015 - 3:56 am

      During the 1600′s, English an “gentlemen” might travel about the countryside with his own chair as it was a luxury at that time to own one. When he stayed at a house that provided Room & Board (a bed and a plank table for serving the food) he would set his chair down at the end of the table to dine with the commoners who would be sitting on benches or stools. He was thus known as The Chairman of the Board.

      Reply
  5. Veronica Fitzrandolph -  April 11, 2014 - 7:09 am

    The whole “gender-neutral naming” thing is ridiculous. I would not mind being called a chairman, or a chairwoman. A chair is a piece of furniture, and chairperson is ugly and silly.

    Would a sailboat with an all-female crew be “fully womaned”? “Fully personned”? I have never been uncomfortable with the concept that “man” or “mankind” included both sexes. Oops, ‘scuse me, both genders.

    Reply
  6. pig -  April 1, 2014 - 3:34 am

    how B..O..R..I.N..G..!

    UNINTERESTING…………………

    Reply
    • Finn -  November 22, 2015 - 11:22 pm

      What a stupid name, that is why you think it is boring. IT IS THE BEST GAME EVER! You are so sh**y. You must eat like a piggy

      Reply
      • Lee -  November 22, 2015 - 11:24 pm

        Exactly piggy

        Reply
  7. becky -  March 19, 2014 - 10:02 pm

    find dad

    Reply
  8. g -  March 14, 2014 - 1:02 am

    replace taint for tate

    Reply
  9. OED -  March 13, 2014 - 8:00 pm

    So, using the term “actor” for a woman is somehow less sexist? Its gender as a noun is masculine, therefore using it for a woman masculinizes her.

    There is a history of women using masculine proper names and, their subsequent disuse by men. However, it never happens that people begin to name baby boys a girl’s name.

    Why is the gender “neutral” (a misnomer) always the masculine form? Unless, of course, the word man is in the word!

    BTW, a chair is something I sit on.

    Reply
  10. Wayne Boyce -  March 13, 2014 - 6:56 pm

    Takes a little getting used to, but I can handle “chair”. What is really awkward is the doubling pronoun “he or she”, “him or her”, “his or hers”. Surely there is some more attractive solution than “it”. For lack of a better, and for brevity, I suggest “o” nominative, objective or possessive. Somebody please come up with something better than this.

    Reply
  11. emjayay -  March 13, 2014 - 9:09 am

    People in theater and film have been using “actor” for both sexes for several decades. A postman is now a letter carrier, although there must be a better solution for that one (?). A waiter/waitress is now routinely called server. I’m sure younger people today have no idea how much more sexist things were before modern feminism – like Help Wanted Male listings.

    Reply
    • mandy -  June 2, 2014 - 7:40 pm

      im a trans gender woman so i understand the sexest thing all too well

      Reply
  12. wolf tamer and iron miner -  March 12, 2014 - 3:01 am

    In the book “Dandelion Fire,” a trial is going on, and the chairman says to the defendant, “Chair addresses William Tate!” William Tate promptly replies, “William Tate addresses Chair!”

    Reply

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