The latest verb to have become all the rage in Britain is to empty chair.

It arises from the failure of the political parties, so far, to reach agreement with the broadcasters on the structure of the political TV debates, which will precede the General Election on 7th May.

The Prime Minister has made an offer to participate in one debate only, together with the leaders of at least six other parties. The main Opposition want there to be more debates and especially 'head-to-head' debates between the PM and the Leader of the Opposition.

There exists a vague threat which politicians are playing upon, that if Mr Cameron does not attend the debates, that he will be empty-chaired.

Does this mean that they will actually provide a chair for him to sit on and leave it empty during the course of the debates, thereby drawing attention to the fact that he has not chosen to participate. Or is the term empty chair being used metaphorically?

Has the verb to empty chair been used elsewhere, e.g. in the USA, in such circumstances?

  • I've never heard this phrase before. I would have thought that to empty chair someone is the same as to fire someone (as in, to remove them from their chair). It sounds like the usage here could instead be expanded by able to defend himself as well as an empty chair or, more concretely, unable to defend himself. In any case, I really doubt that they'll physically have an empty chair there, so this points towards metaphor. Mar 5 '15 at 16:44
  • 2
    To ' empty chair' :telegraph.co.uk/news/general-election-2015/11365495/…
    – user66974
    Mar 5 '15 at 16:46
  • 1
    @Gerger - that is the expression WS2 is referring to (I guess) ..sounds like a journalistic catch-phrase .
    – user66974
    Mar 5 '15 at 16:52
  • 1
    It sounds very much like a metaphorical use. While they could place an empty chair on the stage of the debate, it doesn't seem necessary to understanding the meaning.
    – Barmar
    Mar 5 '15 at 17:03
  • 1
    @ScottM: The first use I can find was the BBC studying their navel some years back, where at 01:59 PM on 17 Apr 2007 in the associated discussion, user James commented using the explicitly "verb-derived" form empty-chairing. But it's worth noting the 11 other references to empty were all noun usages. And particularly worth noting that "James" saw fit to put his then-slightly-innovative usage in "scare quotes". But today, because of political circumstances, it's become a commonplace term in all functions. Mar 5 '15 at 18:36

From the link Josh61 provided above Party leader TV debates: Broadcasters threaten to 'empty chair' David Cameron the phrase to 'empty chair' is literal not metaphorical, i.e " they will actually provide a chair for him to sit on and leave it empty during the course of the debates, thereby drawing attention to the fact that he has not chosen to participate."

The practice may be new to UK but not new to other parts of the world though not associate with political debates.It is a political gesture or statement usually employed to embarrass the opponents.For example, during his life when the Israeli government refused to allow Arafat to attend Christmas Eve special mass at Bethlehem an empty chair was provided and left empty.

The empty chair is not a new practice actually.It originated with Elijah's (empty) chair, a practice that go back to Babylon Talmud time circa 200 CE (AC) (my Jewish cousins may correct me in this); Wikipedia:

At Jewish circumcision ceremonies, a chair is set aside for the use of the prophet Elijah. Elijah is said to be a witness at all circumcisions when the sign of the covenant is placed upon the body of the child. This custom stems from the incident at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19): Elijah had arrived at Mount Horeb after the demonstration of God's presence and power on Mount Carmel. (1 Kings 18) God asks Elijah to explain his arrival, and Elijah replies: “I have been very jealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the people of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thy altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10). According to Rabbinic tradition, Elijah's words were patently untrue (1 Kings 18:4 and 1 Kings 19:18), and since Elijah accused Israel of failing to uphold the covenant, God would require Elijah to be present at every covenant of circumcision.

see also http://www.jewishanswers.org/.

  • Is an expression rooted in a literal image necessarily relegated to a literal application? In each of the examples you offer, the "empty chair" points, metaphorically I suggest, to a missing person.
    – Good A.M.
    Mar 6 '15 at 16:37

TV debates: broadcasters will 'empty chair' leaders who refuse to take part.

The definition of metaphor suggests the expression empty chair is offered as a metaphor:


1 A figure of speech in which a word or phrase is applied to an object or action to which it is not literally applicable:

In the expression Chairing the Member of William Hogarth's famous cartoon (1755), sitting a victorious politician in an chair could be a literal application of the word, even though it seems to extend the phrase into a metaphorical realm of celebration and honor. The author of this recent article reinforces his metaphorical intent by using apostrophes to suggest the literal 'empty chair' is making a metaphorical point along the lines of:

TV debates: broadcasters will disgrace leaders who refuse to take part

We can debate the exact word or phrase that should be used to define the verb phrase empty chair, because it is an idiomatic one-off expression in a complex context, but empty chair seems to point to something that is beyond the chair itself.

Evidence of this metaphorical intent is found in the fact that the journalists would not even need to place an empty chair on the stage to make their point. Of course, putting an empty chair on the stage would empower the imagery, but the moderator of the debates could simply use the verbal neologism to reveal the politician's absence, and the point will have been made quite explicitly:

Tonight we have empty chaired Mr. Politician, who has refused to participate in our debate forum. We believe he should participate, and his absence speaks volumes to us. Exactly where his empty chair is tonight may be one of the questions our debaters discuss.

Since the word chair already has several similar metaphorical applications, this extension of the word's meaning seems quite straightforward:


2.0 The person in charge of a meeting or of an organization (used as a neutral alternative to chairman or chairwoman):

2.1 The post of a chairperson:

3.0 A professorship:



1.0 Act as chairperson of or preside over (an organization, meeting, or public event):

2.0 British Carry (someone) aloft in a chair or in a sitting position to celebrate a victory:

Chair is already a metonym for a position of power and influence, so empty chair is easily turned into a metonym of abdicated power or influence.




Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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