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What title should Janet Yellen use?

By Mark Hamrick · Bankrate.com
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Posted: 6 pm ET

The Senate still must vote whether to confirm Janet Yellen as the next head of the Federal Reserve. Given how things are in Washington these days, predicting any outcome is challenging.

One thing that's still in flux, assuming she is confirmed: her title. The decision is more complicated than you might think.

For Ben Bernanke and his more than a dozen predecessors, it was easy. The title has always been chairman. For Yellen in the No. 2 spot, the answer was "vice chair." But as a woman, what will she choose if confirmed as No. 1?

While the Webster's New World Dictionary lists "chair," "chairman," "chairperson" and "chairwoman" as potential options, in a reporter's world using the grammatical Associated Press style, it could prove more difficult. In the popular stylebook, "chairman" and "chairwoman" are preferred over "chairperson" and "chair." However, AP noted in a recent post that it typically uses "chairman" when referring to the top Fed position in stories, and the news agency is taking a "wait-and-see" approach before deciding what to call Yellen if she's appointed.

Mike McCurry, former White House spokesman under President Bill Clinton, says he's "always considered 'chairperson' stilted and 'chairwoman' cumbersome." He says, "'Chairman' misses the import of a glass ceiling now broken. So given she preferred 'vice chair' anyhow, I think the simple title 'chair' the most elegant solution."

Some other examples

At the Securities and Exchange Commission, recently confirmed Mary Jo White is known as "chair." But Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chose to be called "chairwoman" of the agriculture committee.

And back when she was running the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Sheila Bair chose "chairman."

Author Paul Dickson, who has written a number of books about language, including "Words from the White House," says the middle ground is "chair." He notes that years ago, one dictionary tried to settle the gender debate by adding the word "chairone." Dickson says it failed because people gave it a faux Italian pronunciation, as in chair-ROH'-nee. He says the experience showed that "you can't lobby a word into the dictionary."

So why did Bair choose the title she did? It partly seems to reflect her financial prudence. "I used 'chairman' for the practical reason that we wouldn't have to reprint a lot of stationery and signage," she says. She also adds that it simply didn't sound right. As Bair puts it, "'Chair Bair' simply wouldn't work."

Ultimately, the ability to make the decision is a power held by the nation's chief central banker. Dickson, who also served as a consulting editor to Merriam-Webster, says, "Believe it or not, it really is her call. It was like John. F. Kennedy telling everybody to call him 'Jack.'"

So along with deciding when and if to begin winding down asset purchases aimed at boosting the economy, and perhaps ultimately hiking interest rates, Yellen needs to decide what's in her own name. We're guessing she's not going to choose "chairone." What do you think Yellen's title should be if confirmed as head of the Fed?

Follow me on Twitter: @hamrickisms.

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