Origin of the species: Is ‘chairman’ a gender-neutral term?


Opposition leader Tony Abbott got in a bit of a bother after journalist David Marr wrote, in the latest Quarterly Essay, that Abbott had called the head of the Sydney University Student Representative Council a ‘chair-thing’ after she objected to being called ‘chairman’.

While it’s unlikely Abbott was taking a stand on the finer points of corporate governance, many have questioned whether there’s very much wrong with the term ‘chairman’ from a gender perspective.

At a recent lunch LeadingCompany attended, a female chair objected to being called a ‘chairwoman’, quoting the explanation that the ‘man’ in the term came from ‘manus’, the Latin for ‘hand’, and thus wasn’t sexist at all.

It’s a remarkably common assertion among corporate types, but it is also one disputed on many internet forums.

To get to the truth of the matter, LeadingCompany contacted Macquarie University professor of linguistics, Pam Peters, who for many years was a member of the Macquarie Dictionary’s editorial committee.

She laughs when LeadingCompany puts the question to her.

“That’s a bit of a red herring,” she says. “A big one.”

‘Manus’, the Latin word for hand’, is part of the origin of words such as ‘manual’ and ‘manufacture’. “But it gets into compound words only as ‘manu’,” Peters says. “With the ‘u’ attached. It’s never in there just as ‘man’.”

Also making the chair-hand origin unlikely is the fact that ‘chair’ has French roots. “You rarely get compounds formed out of French and Latin roots in modern English,” Peters says.

She’s heard the chair+manus assertion before. “It’s been around since the 1990s, because that was when the pressure for non-sexist, inclusive language first surfaced. It was one of the defence mechanisms for people who didn’t want to change the term – a fig-leaf for people to say it wasn’t a reference to ‘man’.”

“I’ve always thought of it as a very ad hoc argument.”

In Australia, the 1995 edition of the Australian Federal Government’s style manual tried to find non-gendered ways of referring to people in official roles. Peters says John Howard, who was elected prime minister in 1996, was keen not to have language interfered with. “He issued an edict that everyone should continue to use ‘chairman’. It was a bit of a unilateral Australian style edict, and those who answered to him made sure to use ‘chairman’.”

As to whether the traditional ‘chairman’ should continue to be used, in preference to more neutral terms like ‘chair’, ‘chairperson’ or ‘chairwomen’ where appropriate, Peters is open-minded.

“If women are happy being called chairman, who minds.”

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