Chair

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The noun chair normally means an item of furniture - something on which a person sits. Two other uses may be relevant to users of AWE.

  • In academic life, chair is one possible title of a Professor, at least in the UK and similar systems. A professor is said to 'hold a' or 'have the chair' when appointed to a particular post. The fact of appointment may in itself be expressed as 'elected to a chair'. (This does not imply a democratic choice by students; the electors are equivalent to the academic appointment panel.) Such a post is usually a professorship funded by an endowment by a benefactor (after whom it is often named). The title arose because the Professor, of whom there was usually only one per subject, was the person entitled to sit in the only item of individual furniture in that particular teaching area.
  • The person who presides over a meeting - who manages the discussion of the meeting - is sometimes called 'the Chair'. This is a shortening of the more traditional term 'Chairman'. Although it is an historical fact that most such people were male, the term is now felt by many to make a sexist assumption. Some women who preside over such meetings prefer to be called 'Chairwoman'. Others prefer the sexually neutral term 'Chair'. (A right-wing politician running a public meeting was once heard to remark of a feminist, "If she calls me 'Chair' again, I'll throw it at her", thereby showing a different opinion on political correctness.) Formally, in many public meetings, as in Committee hearings at the House of Commons, speakers are instructed to "address all remarks through the chair". This means that one should always talk to the Chair[person] of the meeting.

Several other meanings of 'chair' are recorded, most implying authority. Two older uses may be worth explaining. In the eighteenth century, it meant a personal method of transport favoured by rich women, "An enclosed chair or covered vehicle for one person, carried on poles by two men" (OED). The fuller name is 'a sedan chair', or 'hackney chair'. Commonly during the twentieth century in the US, 'the chair' meant, in talking of criminal matters, the 'electric chair', a form of capital punishment.

The use of the noun chair to mean a person running a meeting has given rise to the verb 'to chair'. This is usually in the context of chairing a meeting. In the nineteenth century particularly the verb had other meanings, notably 'to carry someone on high in a chair, as a mark of honour or success'.