Tuesday, June 29, 2010

History of language: higher education can be fun

Stephen Chrisomalis is a fun and spirited guy, as I can attest from personal contact. Read this account of in-class research on the history of the word "chairperson" and see if you don't agree that it sounds like practically the Platonic ideal of an undergraduate course-meeting:

Last week I was running a very similar lecture to the one I always, on language and gender, where we talk about whether there are innate sex differences in language usage (not really), whether there are gender differences (yes, albeit highly context-dependent), blah blah blah. We talk about the myth that women talk more than men and get into some of the issues relating to social power. But that’s it. Even though it’s a topic a lot of students are interested in, I hadn’t ever come out of that session feeling as if we had learned anything in particular, or done anything out of the ordinary.

And then we found chairperson. It had ended up on the list of topics I was preparing on the subject, and when I showed the list to my class, they honed in on it right away. We actually started by investigating ‘chairman’, ‘chairwoman’, and ‘chair’, as well – all three are attested in the OED from the 17th century. ‘Chair’ as a title held by a person was surprisingly early (not just ‘he held the chair’ but ‘he was the chair’) at 1658. This alone, based on two minutes’ search of the OED, was worthwhile as a lesson to the students, because chair, too, has been the subject of some ideologically-charged metalanguage. I had thought that I might show them how we could examine the frequency of the various terms on a decade-by-decade basis. But chairperson, sitting there with its date of 1971, was far too tempting a target.

And so off we went on our lexical excursion. I didn’t expect much, maybe to find a few from the 60s, then move on with my demonstration of other techniques. The usual Googlery didn’t produce much of interest – not least because of the wacky metadata in Google Books and Google News Archive, producing thousands upon thousands of misdated records and more than one feisty embuggerance. (Oh, and PS, Google, when I search for chairperson do not show me results for chairman automatically.) I cursed once or twice at the Great God of Search, against my normal classroom practice (uhh … you can stop laughing now.) But Proquest, oh, sweet Proquest, how you came through for me. So instead of 1971, we have the following four early attestations:

1899 Washington Post Jul 15, pg. 6 “Indignant Womanhood”
“Madame Chairperson,” exclaimed the delegate, earnestly, “I feel the force of all that has been said concerning the necessity for us, the women of the nation, to nominate a clean candidate!”

Read the rest here.


  1. I read this over and though this incident owes a lot to Stephen being smart, adaptable and outgoing, what occurs to me (see first para of my summary) is "touched by the hand of God." To some degree these things just happen, and one can only be grateful.

  2. Steve, thanks for this. I tend to agree that these things just happen (although you need to be prepared for them to happen, and be able to take advantage of the situation). I honestly had serious reservations about even giving the Lexiculture exercise to the students, but ultimately, this course is experimental for me (a summer 'trial run' of a course I've completely reworked for the fall) and so, experiment I did. Even as we were investigating 'chairperson', especially as the Googles were failing me, I was sitting in front of the class, mentally writing the 'Well, it didn't work this time, but you get the idea' speech.

    - Steve Chrisomalis

  3. And you didn't need that speech! [laughs in glee]