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Denis Beckett

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Drop the “chairwoman”, Gill

In bad, bad ancient days when people thought homosexuality was sinful and Africans didn’t do voting and prisons were good places to send criminals to, they also got some things right. For instance, the person conducting a meeting was the chairman. Easy.

My friend Libby Husemeyer was an excellent chairman, a real master.

Another friend, Astrid van Warmelo, was a fireman. She was a fireman, see, and if you didn’t get that right you might get a klap. She was not up for being singled out, separated, lessened. She did the work that other firemen did; she should be called what other firemen were called.

But the world moved on, in that way it has. And as always, the moving on was mainly a moving up, but with lots of little duwweltjies of downness scattered around to puncture your tubes.

Thus have we inflicted the innocent English language with barbarous new constructions such as “chairwoman” and “spokeswoman”.

Now I concede most readily that “chairwoman” and its little friend are not the weightiest of the new idiocies, but they are well up among the crispest and they are also eminently salvageable. I hereby put to the distinguished jury a simple proposition: that “chairwoman”, pending its expulsion from the dictionaries to which it has recently acceded, should meantime be expunged from our usage.

Here’s the indictment:

Count 1. Chairwoman is retrogressive.

Once, your gender mattered mightily. So did your race, your tribe, your class. Those things wrote the script of your life.

No longer, whew.

Race, class, tribe and gender retreat. That’s not exactly new; they’ve been in retreat as long as humans have been evolving, but there was a lot to be retreated from. For centuries it was grudging retreat with active rear gunners. Now, with humankind testing new thresholds, the retreat is a free-fall. Each day we judge you less by whether you are man or woman, dark or pale, born of a duke or born of a peasant. Each day we judge you more by who you are; honest or shady, real or phoney, open or veiled.

Status distinctions tumble and fall, to be carted off in the tumbrel of bygone tyrannies. Our own generation has taken terrific steps, like Ms, overdue relief to a womankind that spent millennia with its marital status on display like a neon forehead. There is more to be done. It’s work in progress. It’s going the right way.

Except for “chairwoman”, and its partners in crime. Other backward terms are mainly hangover terms, not yet cleared out from the past. “Chairwoman” is a new invention, re-dividing the human race that in so many other ways is travelling out of division and into unity. That’s perverse.


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