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Why is a professorship sometimes called a chair? Are chairs only the correct term when the professorship has been endowed? (I don't think so, because endowed professorships are rare in the UK, but people still speak about chairs).

What's the origin and correct usage of the term?

Edit: Thanks for the responses, I would like to slightly expand on the 'usage' part of the question by asking whether every professor at every university could correctly be said to hold a chair? If it varies, what determines who has a chair and who is just a professor? Perhaps the term is more common in the US because the term professor is used more widely than in the UK, for relatively junior faculty (who would be called lecturers in the UK).

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etymonline.com:

chair (n.)

"a seat with a back, intended for one person," early 13c., chaere, from Old French chaiere "chair, seat, throne" ... from Latin cathedra "seat" (see cathedral).

Figurative sense of "seat of office or authority" c. 1300 originally was of bishops and professors. Meaning "office of a professor" (1816) is extended from the seat from which a professor lectures (mid-15c.). ...

The etymology is much more obvious in Romance languages: see e.g. the Spanish word catedrático.

Note that there's a specific type of chair which is also used figuratively to refer to the authority of the person who is entitled to sit in it: throne. Usage is probably parallel, although digging out examples to demonstrate this would be a non-trivial research project.


I see from comments that there are two opinions about what the question meant by asking about usage. To address the other opinion, in as much as it's not already answered by user2768: professor in British English is reserved to those who hold a chair, which may be an endowed or a personal chair. In American English it is used far more widely. Cognate words in other languages may be used even more widely still: in Spanish, profesor is used for teachers from primary to tertiary education, although as mentioned above there's also a word catedrático which corresponds to the British professor. I would expect that most of the Commonwealth follows the British usage, with the possible exception of Canada, but I would not be surprised to be corrected on this in comments.

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    There's another specific type of chair used the same way, which you also mention: cathedra. And of course we talk of MPs being elected to a seat in Parliament. And we have a bench of bishops or magistrates. – Michael Kay Dec 21 '18 at 1:02
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    While this covers the etymology of the term, it doesn't address what I took to be the question, namely whether the word 'chair' in this context has a special meaning distinct from 'professorship'. (i.e. can you be a professor without holding a chair, or vice versa.) – Nathaniel Dec 21 '18 at 6:59
  • There are two questions, each asked in two different ways. Basically: (a) Why is it called a chair? and (b) when is it correct to call it a chair? – Michael Kay Dec 21 '18 at 9:43
  • @Nathaniel you are right, I would also like to know about usage. Does every professor have a chair? Do some universities use the term and others don't? Is it a formal term within universities, or just a commonly used term for professorship – flashton Dec 23 '18 at 8:53
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Professors hold a “chair” in a subject which can be either established or personal. Established chairs exist independently of the person who holds it, and if they leave the chair can be filled by someone else. A personal chair is awarded to a specific individual in recognition of high levels of achievement. If they leave, there is no guarantee the chair will be available for someone else.

Source: https://academicpositions.com/career-advice/uk-academic-job-titles-explained

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    While interesting, I don't think that actually answers the question? – Flyto Dec 20 '18 at 14:04
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    The quote explains that professors hold a "chair", which captures the why, and explains the subtle differences between different usages of the term, which captures correct usage. So, it seems to me that it does answer the question. (It doesn't deal with endowment, because I didn't follow that aspect of the question. Perhaps the following helps: [a professorship is] roughly equivalent to an American endowed chair. It doesn't deal with origin either.) – user2768 Dec 20 '18 at 15:12
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Being the chair of a university department and holding a named chair at a university are completely different. The first is an administrative position and, most holders would hope, a temporary one. A named chair is a permanent title, designating a level of achievement beyond the professor. Further, a named chair can be endowed or not endowed but, most holders would hope, it is the former.

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My mother (in the USA) is a full professor, but was only titled 'chair' once she became the 'chair' of the English department. In that context, it connoted her as the senior-most professor in her department, with official administrative duties, including hiring decisions for the department, being a part of tenure award decisions, etc.

Also, other professors I've known have held chairs with someone's name attached, and this was an honorific rather than an administrative position. I don't think it's accurate to say any given professor, even any full professor, is considered 'chaired' by default.

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    This answer is conflating the administrative term chair meaning "chairperson" (equivalent to "head of department" in other places) with the professorial term chair, which is associated with research rather than management. – Michael MacAskill Dec 21 '18 at 1:06
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    @MichaelMacAskill Yep. The question doesn't distinguish at that level either, however. – MarkTO Dec 21 '18 at 18:13
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    @MichaelMacAskill That conflation is also present in academia: heads of departments are often referred to as "the chair of the department" at least here in the US; this doesn't mean they have an endowed chair necessarily. The original question indeed mentions that it seems like "chair" is used in an academic context without an association to endowed chairs or other honorary positions, which is what this answer addresses. – Bryan Krause Dec 21 '18 at 18:30
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It's a figure of speech called metonymy. It's like referring to the UK government as "Whitehall", or to the monarch as "the Crown".

It makes a useful distinction between the job/office, and the current individual job holder.

I think that any professorship can be referred to as a chair.

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    Technically, the Crown isn't just metonymy for the monarch: the Crown is the institution of the monarchy, distinct from any individual monarch. There have been many monarchs since the union, but since 1707 there's been only one Crown. (I think.) – TRiG Dec 20 '18 at 15:05
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    And there have been many Lucasian Professors but only one Lucasian Chair. – Michael Kay Dec 20 '18 at 15:24
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    @TRiG, if you chose 1707 because of the Act of Union then you should probably take into account the Act of Union 1800 and the Government of Ireland Act 1920. – Peter Taylor Dec 20 '18 at 16:30
  • Actually, in Germany there is a distinction between (translated and adapted) associate and full professorships. The latter have chairs, the earlier do not really. – Oleg Lobachev Dec 20 '18 at 16:39
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    @Oleg Lobachev so they form a "standing group"? ;) – henning -- reinstate Monica Dec 20 '18 at 18:04

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