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Origin of the term chair in academia?

  1. Nov 16, 2013 #1


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    Origin of the term "chair" in academia?

    When I was very young, I wondered why professors (heads of departments) were said to have a "chair" in such-and-such subject. I thought of the story about King Louis XIV of France who was said to have a chair in (their equivalent of) the cabinet room which doubled as a toilet. If, during a meeting with his ministers, he felt the need to... umm,... "go", he could just pop the lid of his chair and do his business right there without leaving the room. :yuck: Presumably someone would come and collect the royal "doings"? Or maybe not, since everyone knows that royal doings don't stink.
    So, I wondered if maybe those very important academics also needed a similar facility. :biggrin:

    More seriously though, what are the origins of the academic term "chair" ?
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  3. Nov 16, 2013 #2


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    Latin imported the Greek word kathedra, meaning a chair with arm rests, and the early Christian church took that as a formal symbol of authority. Hence a cathedral was a building containing a bishop's "official" kathedra from which formal pronouncements were made. The kathedra was a permanent symbol of authority, regardless of the finite lives of those who sat on it.

    I suppose the first "modern" western universities (dating from about 1200 AD) adopted the same authority symbol, and the same concept that the institution of "head of department" is named after the permanent symbol, rather than its temporary current occupant.

    Of course elaborate and expensive chairs (a.k.a. thrones) were used as both secular and religious power symbols long before the Greeks and Romans came along.
  4. Nov 16, 2013 #3


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  5. Nov 17, 2013 #4


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    Thanks guys. :smile:
  6. Nov 17, 2013 #5
    And the term is of course also used in band and orchestra skill level terminology. I played second fiddle during all of my six years in the high school band.:devil:
  7. Nov 17, 2013 #6


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    Curiously, the maestro conductor in charge of the orchestra does not have a "chair", but only a little stick to do with whatever he wants. :biggrin:
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