The Grammarphobia Blog

When chairmen carried chairs

Q: I came across an old penny dreadful online that refers to one of the bearers of a sedan chair as a “chairman.” Is that the original meaning of the term?

A: No, the word “chairman” meant pretty much what it means today when it showed up in the mid-1600s. However, the use of the term for one of the bearers of a sedan chair appeared a few decades later.

For readers who aren’t familiar with the term, a “sedan chair” was a fashionable form of transportation in Britain in the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries. The enclosed chair for one passenger was carried on poles by two bearers, one in front and one in back.

(Similar wheelless vehicles carried by humans have been used around the world since ancient times.)

When the word “chairman” showed up in the mid-17th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it referred to the “occupier of a chair of authority,” especially someone “chosen to preside over a meeting.”

The OED’s earliest citation is from a 1654 commentary on the Book of Job by John Trapp, a Church of England clergyman: “I sate chief, and was Chair-man.”

The dictionary’s next example (which we’ve expanded) is from a Jan. 22, 1661, entry in the Diary of Samuel Pepys:

“It pleased me much now to come in this condition to this place I was once a petitioner for my exhibition in Paul’s School; and where Sir G. Downing (my late master) was chaireman.”

Interestingly, the use of “chairwoman” for a “woman who occupies the chair of presidency at a meeting” is almost as old, though it wasn’t used much until the 19th century, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s first example for “chairwoman” is from the English poet Thomas Brown’s 1699 translation of seven colloquies of Erasmus: “We ought to have … four Chairwomen of our four Committees.”

The use of “chair” by itself for the occupant of the seat of authority dates from the mid-1600s. The earliest Oxford citation is a 1659 entry in the diary of Thomas Burton:

“The Chair behaves himself like a Busby amongst so many schoolboys … and takes a little too much on him.” (The word “Busby” is apparently being used here figuratively for a soldier who wears a busby, a tall fur hat.)

Now, the dictionary says, “chair” is used “an alternative for ‘chairman’ or ‘chairwoman,’ esp. deliberately so as not to imply a particular sex.”

The OED’s earliest citation for the gender-neutral “chairperson” is from the September 1971 issue of Science News: “A group of women psychologists thanked the board for using the word ‘chairperson’ rather than ‘chairman.’ ”

Getting back to “chairman,” in the 18th century the term took on the sense of a “member of a corporate body appointed or elected to preside at its meetings, and in general to exercise the chief authority in the conduct of its affairs; the president.”

The OED’s first citation is from Ephraim Chambers’s 1782 Cyclopædia: “The directors are twenty-four in number, including the chairman and deputy-chairman.”

Backing up a bit, the word “chairman” was first used in the late 17th century for someone “whose occupation it is to carry persons in chairs or chair-like conveyances; spec. the two men who carried a sedan-chair,” according to Oxford.

The first example given is from a 1682 issue of the London Gazette: “A tall Blackamore … in a Green Doublet and Breeches, with a large Chairmans Coat of the same colour.”

And here’s a 1703 example from the Gazette: “Twenty Chairmen, with Sedans.”

A “sedan chair” was originally called a “sedan” when the term appeared in the mid-17th century. The OED’s first citation is from The Sparagus Garden, a 1640 comedy by the English dramatist Richard Brome:

“Shee’s now gone forth in one o’ the new Hand-litters: what call yee it, a Sedan.”

The earliest OED example for the full term “sedan chair” is from a 1750 will cited in John Orlebar Payne’s Records of the English Catholics (1889): “My sedan chair.”

The dictionary says the belief that the usage was derived from “the name of Sedan, a town of NE. France, has nothing to support it, and seems unlikely.”

It notes a report that the original sedan chair was imported from Italy, adding that it’s “therefore natural to suppose that the word might be from some South Italian derivative of Italian sede (Latin sēdēs) seat, sedere to sit.”

However, the OED adds that “there seems to be no trustworthy evidence of the existence in Italian dialects of any form from which the English word could be derived. ”

In other words, origin unknown.

Today, the “sedan chair” is a footnote to history, and “sedan” has been used since the early 20th century, chiefly in North America, to mean a type of automobile.

Returning to your question, we should mention that the term “penny dreadful” refers to cheaply published sensational crime stories that were popular in the 19th century. Oxford Dictionaries online says they were “so named because the original cost was one penny.”

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