DJ is chaired at Stanford!

Yesteday’s hot news from my little corner of academia, a message from my Stanford linguistics colleague Beth Levin announcing that

Dan Jurafsky … has just been appointed to an endowed chair, the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professorship in the Humanities.

Margaret Jacks Hall was thronged with well-endowed celebrants bearing chairs and singing paeans to the law and the American banking system, bringing to conclusion not only the month of Ramadan but also an extraordinarily crowded season of doctoral debuts (some of which I will report on in other postings).

In the midst of this, excited buzz — like the murmuring of innumerable bees — over the verbing of chair in the sense (roughly) ‘to award a named professorship to’.

But, seriously, verbings of the noun chairNOAD mingily offers only two verbings:

verb chair: [with object] 1 act as chairperson of or preside over (an organization, meeting, or public event). 2. British carry (someone) aloft in a chair or in a sitting position to celebrate a victory.

But OED2 has a slew:

1 a. trans. To place or seat in a chair; esp. to install in a chair of authority. [1st cite 1761; 1850 P. Crook War of Hats 52 A Guy Fawkes figure toiletted and chaired.]

b. To place in a chair or on a seat, and carry aloft in triumph, as an honour to a favourite, a successful competitor, and formerly often to the successful candidate at a parliamentary election. [1st cite 1761; 1857 T. Hughes Tom Brown’s School Days ii. viii. 408 [Tom] was chaired round the quadrangle, on one of the hall benches borne aloft by the eleven.]

c. To award the chair to (the successful competitor at the Welsh Eisteddfod).

d. To direct (a meeting, etc.) as chairman; to preside over. [1st cite 1921]

2. To carry or wheel in a chair. [1886 J. Pendleton Hist. Derbysh.99 The bride, owing to her infirmities, had to be chaired to the altar.]

3. To provide with a chair or chairs. [1843 Dickens Martin Chuzzlewit (1844) xxvii. 324 The offices were..newly chaired.]

Sense 1a, in the specialized sense ‘to install in a chair of authority’, further specialized in an academic context. They have chaired Jurafsky, drummed him into the pantheon!

Having seen this, I was led to imagine still more verbings of chair:

trans. ‘to chain to a chair’ (They used manacles to chair their captive), ‘to fend off using a chair’ (The trainer deftly chaired his tiger), ‘to place a chair on the head of’ (In a moment of whimsy, she lampshaded one of them and chaired the other), ‘to transform s.o. into a chair’ (Before she could protest, the magician chaired her); intrans.‘to act as or play a chair’ (In the Furniture Game, he end-tabled and she chaired), ‘to transform o.s. into a chair’ (Odo briefly chaired before pooling for the night), etc.

That’s the great advantage of verbing, its flexibility: you can do so many things with verbing. And, simultaneously, its corresponding great disadvantage: any verbing can be understood in tons of ways, maybe even (in context) an endless number of ways.

Yes, it’s Brevity vs. Clarity again. Compounding, zero conversion (including both verbing and nouning), and subtractive morphology (including back-formation and what I’ve called beheading) all promote brevity of expression, but they also work against clarity of expression, because they introduce potential ambiguities (which could have been avoided by using a longer, more explicit, form of expression). Dan has been chaired — punchy but potentially understandable in many ways. Dan has been appointed to an endowed professorial chair — much clearer, but six words where one would have done. (Given the academic context of Beth’s announcement, professorial can be omitted, as it was in Beth’s announcement, but that’s still five words instead of one.)

Further complexity: some brief versions are conventionalized expressions — the editors of NOAD thought that just two verbings of chair are — and these you can more easily get away with. Fresh creations, as in the title of this posting, make more work for your readers or hearers than conventionalized expressions. Is that worth it?

It’s all got to be balanced out in the context, according to your aims and your assessments of the needs of your readers or hearers. No easy answers.

Still more seriously, Jackson Eli Reynolds, the person honored by the naming of the professorship that Dan now holds (or is about to hold). Most often, this is the person who fronted the money, who supplied the endowment that now provides the holder’s salary (though sometimes endowments are set up to honor someone in the donor’s family, or someone the donor admires, even, occasionally, a beloved former professor). I suspect that Reynolds was in fact the donor of the endowment that bears his name: lawyer, banker, and financier Jackson Eli Reynolds (1873-1958), Stanford A.B. 1896, Columbia Law 1899, and subject of a 1949 Columbia Univ. oral history Reminiscences of Jackson E. Reynolds.

(Digression: the fit between donor and holder can range all over the map. My current favorite in the misfit department is Debbie Cameron. From Wikipedia:

Deborah Cameron (born 10 November 1958), is a feminist linguist, who holds the Rupert Murdoch Professorship in Language and Communication at Worcester College, Oxford University.

She is mainly interested in sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology. A large part of her academic research is focused on the relationship of language to gender and sexuality.

Cameron keenly appreciates the absurdity in her holding a chair endowed by newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch.)

Reynolds is a more conventional sort of donor, who made a ton of money in business — but also had an early career as a law professor, which is points for him. A person of substance, enough to have his portrait in the National Portrait Gallery:

(#1) Painting by Leopold Gould Seyffert

An account of his rise in the law and business, from the Columbia Alumni News in 1922:


There are two Reynolds chairs at Stanford, one in law, one in humanities. Ralph Richard Banks is the current Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. And Dan’s predecessor is Stephen Orgel in English, now the Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor in Humanities, Emeritus.


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