Is it right to use chair, but not chairman in this example?

He served as the Department Chair from 1995 to 1999.

  • 2
    It's not really logical to call a person a chair. People don't normally talk to furniture, apart from Clint Eastwood last year.
    – Tristan
    Apr 25, 2013 at 9:48
  • 4
    Tristan: I suggest you look up the word metonymy in any good dictionary.
    – Colin Fine
    Apr 26, 2013 at 9:32
  • Colin, you could always look up Clint Eastwood's chair incident from last year.
    – Tristan
    Apr 29, 2013 at 20:19

6 Answers 6


Traditionally the word chairman was used irrespective of whether the incumbent was a man or a woman. But over the last few decades many people have tried to avoid words which include the morpheme man because they are seen as excluding women.

Two of the solutions which have been applied to chairman are chairperson and chair. Both are now in wide use, probably chair more commonly.

There are a few people who object to either of these uses: probably the only way to express it that will not upset anybody is to avoid the noun altogether:

He chaired the Department from 1995 to 1999


As jgbelacqua has pointed out, in the academic world the word chair existed as a post (professorship) long before the concerns I mentioned above. To refer to the holder of a chair as the Chair is simple metonymy, and well-established. This is different from outside academia, where chair did not exist in this sense, and so the use for a person came in as a neologism which some find awkward.

  • 6
    +1 for the answer, although I think that someone who is upset by the use of "chairman" to indicate a woman is not the best person to chair anything... sometimes I feel we're pushing the "politically correct" too far.
    – nico
    Mar 21, 2011 at 12:59
  • 3
    I agree. I think I will never be able to call a person chair.
    – Edwin Ross
    Mar 21, 2011 at 13:25
  • 10
    I once saw a conference report which said "the floor withdrew its support from the chair and the platform" prompting ideas of physical collapse. But, within reason, you should call people what they want to be called.
    – Henry
    Mar 21, 2011 at 13:32
  • 3
    @nico PC is certainly being overdone these days... but, at least IMHO, this is not a case of too-much-PC. Mar 21, 2011 at 17:17
  • 4
    The term "Chair" as in "Department Chair" is not at all unusual, and has been standard in many academic departments for a long time.
    – jbelacqua
    Mar 22, 2011 at 2:56

With regard to the question, it could be right to use chair or chairperson, or possibly both. @Colin put it well -- you probably can't avoid upsetting someone unless you avoid the term altogether, but there will usually be a convention in place to guide you usage.

Nevertheless, there is plenty of precedent for chair by itself, so you need not feel as if you're bowing to some insidious and terrible force of political correctness.

If you regard the early 19th century as the start of the age of political correctness, it's possible that you will disagree.

To expand on my earlier comment ("The term Chair as in Department Chair is not at all unusual, and has been standard in many academic departments for a long time"), I thought I'd look at some historical usage of the term.

First, the metonymic use of chair to mean an authority is quite old. The OED gives one of the definitions and earliest examples of this use as

[3]. a. A seat of authority, state, or dignity; a throne, bench, judgement-seat, etc.

1393 J. Gower Confessio III. iv. 125 Ianus with double face In his chare hath take his place. b. Place or situation of authority, etc.

1382 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) Matt. xxiii. 2 Vpon the chaier of Moyses, scribis and Pharisees seeten.

Bishops, episcopal authority:

[4]. a. The seat of a bishop in his church; hence fig. episcopal dignity or authority. Obs. or arch.

1480 Caxton Chron. Eng. xl. 28
Seynt peter preched in antyoche and ther he made a noble chirche in whiche he sate fyrste in his chaier.

1591 Troublesome Raigne Iohn ii. sig. E3, Treads downe the Strumpets pride, That sits vpon the chaire of Babylon.

Here's a reference to professorship:

[6]. a. The seat from which a professor or other authorized teacher delivers his lectures.

c1449 R. Pecock Repressor (1860) 518 To be rad‥in the chaier of scolis.

1691 A. Wood Athenæ Oxon. II. 506
His prudent presiding in the Professors chair.

Continuing --

b. Hence: The office or position of a professor.

1816 Scott Antiquary III. ii. 39 Fighting his way to a chair of rhetoric.

1856 R. W. Emerson Eng. Traits xii. 210 Many chairs and many fellowships are made beds of ease.

1875 M. Arnold Ess. Crit. (ed. 3) Pref. p. x (note) The author had still the Chair of Poetry at Oxford.

[8]. The seat, and hence the office, of the chief magistrate of a corporate town; mayorship. past, above, or below the chair [[...]

1682 Eng. Elect. Sheriffs 26 Some people‥did so industriously stickle for Sir John Moor's Election to the Chair.

1714 London Gaz. No. 5261/4, The Aldermen below the Chair on Horseback in Scarlet Gowns.

Presiding Chairs!

[9]. a. The seat occupied by the person presiding at a meeting, from whence he directs its business; hence, the office or dignity of chairman of a meeting, or of the Speaker of the House of Commons.

In various phrases, as to take the chair, to assume the position of chairman, which in most cases formally opens a meeting; to put in the chair, to elect as chairman; in the chair, acting as chairman; to leave or vacate the chair, to cease acting as chairman, which marks the close of a meeting.

1659 T. Burton Diary (1828) IV. 462, I move that your Speaker forbear the Chair.

1702 Clarendon's Hist. Rebellion I. iv. 233 The Committee of the Commons appointed Mr Pym to sit in the Chair.

Chair! Chair!

b. Often put for the occupant of the chair, the chairman, as invested with its dignity [...], e.g. in the cry Chair! Chair! when the authority of the chairman is appealed to, or not duly regarded; to address the chair, support the chair, etc. Now also used as an alternative for ‘chairman’ or ‘chairwoman’, esp. deliberately so as not to imply a particular sex.

1658–9 T. Burton Diary 23 Mar. (1828) 243 The Chair behaves himself like a Busby amongst so many school-boys‥and takes a little too much on him.

Other examples of metonymy which superficially resemble referring to people as objects : the crown, the board, the bar, the panel, the suits, the big guns, etc..

  • You will not call the Queen "Her Majesty Crown", will you? But thanks for the answer, it was interesting to read it.
    – Edwin Ross
    Mar 22, 2011 at 6:42
  • 2
    @Edwin Ross - no, but you talk about the Crown doing something or of something being owned by the Crown.
    – neil
    Mar 22, 2011 at 10:43
  • Sure, but the problem is that you have to call a certain person "chair" even when addressing him and not the authority or symbol that he represents.
    – Edwin Ross
    Mar 22, 2011 at 10:55
  • @Edwin -- see the last definition, (b) for that usage (present since at least 1828).
    – jbelacqua
    Mar 22, 2011 at 14:20
  • Thank you jgbelacqua, I understand that I will have to get used to it somehow.
    – Edwin Ross
    Mar 22, 2011 at 18:12

Indeed, in your example

He served as the Department Chair from 1995 to 1999.

chair is correct. Department Chair is a well-established idiomatic phrase, especially in academic circles in the United States. (You might find HODs elsewhere.) You could also say Chairman of the Department in a non-academic context.


From a purely logical, accurate description, in the interest of communicating reality:

Chairman is a man; Chairwoman is a woman; Chairperson would be acceptable for either.

Keep it simple silly!

  • 1
    I agree! If we use chair for chairperson, do we use spokes for a spokesman/spokesperson, or work for a workman, or post for a postman (same as "mailman" in the US I think), and so on?!
    – TrevorD
    May 14, 2013 at 22:28
  • Jennifer, that's a good point and the most logical answer so far.
    – Tristan
    May 14, 2013 at 23:23


Definition of man
noun (plural men)
1. ...
2. a human being of either sex; a person: God cares for all men
(also Man) [in singular] human beings in general; the human race: places untouched by the ravages of man


man noun (men)
6.: human being; a person
- the right man for the job
- Time waits for no man
- manhunt
- man-made
- a two-man job

Like it or not, man is an accepted English term for a 'generic' person.

Yes, if it bothers people, it's easy enough to substitute 'person' or 'woman' in many instances.


Definition of chair
noun 1. a separate seat for one person, typically with a back and four legs. ...
2. the person in charge of a meeting or of an organization (used as a neutral alternative to chairman or chairwoman): she’s the chair of a research committee
- the post of a chairperson: he was due to step down after a three-year stint in the chair
3. a professorship: he held a chair in physics 4. ...
verb [with object]
1. act as chairperson of or preside over (an organization, meeting, or public event): the debate was chaired by the Archbishop of York
2. ...


1. a seat for one person, with a back-support and usually four legs.
2. the office of chairman or chairwoman at a meeting, etc, or the person holding this office.
3. a professorship.
4. ...
verb (chaired, chairing) 1. to control or conduct (a meeting) as chairman or chairwoman. 2. ... 3. to place someone in a seat of authority.
in the chair acting as chairman.
take the chair to be chairman or chairwoman.
ETYMOLOGY: 13: from French chaiere, from Latin cathedra, from Greek kathedra seat.

Yes, chair is now included in authoritative dictionaries as a term for the person chairing a meeting, etc. (as well as for the name of the office or authority), but personally, I still feel as if I would be talking to a piece of furniture if I were to address the chairperson as "chair"!


Largely as a consequence of having evolved from so many different linguistic roots, English is unrivalled in its elasticity and its capacity for further evolution. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on where you choose to be in the spectrum of tolerating change. The effect of this flexibility is that a word or term, used widely and frequently enough and over a period of time, can become acceptable, even if its origin is in ignorance. The term 'Chair' is (or, one might argue, should be) more commonly applied to an office than it is to a person. Some of the metonymic examples cited on this page, whilst instructive, are not particularly helpful. 'He held the chair of the department' would be stylistically preferable to 'he was the chair of the department'; that is, as long as the context allows one to avoid the misunderstanding that the subject was either an animated piece of furniture, a furniture removal man, or somebody involved in an amorous embrace with a senior academic. If the debate is about political correctness, one should take care to avoid assuming that a word ending in -man necessarily denotes the masculine. There are plenty of lady chairmen of corporations. Or is that woman chairmen? Or should that be woperson?

To answer the question: unless it's a specific reference to academia, the words 'Chair' and 'Chairman' would be interchangeable in the example given, but 'Chairman' would be better.

  • Hello again, Philanthropistrog. This is great stuff. Just fyi, we very much appreciate links to sources which support answers (not expected in comments). Thanks so much. :-) Dec 30, 2013 at 15:42

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.