A chairman is the leader of a committee or parliamentary body. The origin is, as one might guess, a compound of the words chair + man. The chair is a reference to a seat or position of authority and the man is, of course, a reference to the person who occupies it. The word dates to 1654 when it appears in John Trapp’s Commentary of the Book of Job:
I sate chief, and was Chair-man.
In more recent times the word has come under criticism for being sexist as not all such leaders are male. A backlash by those who want to preserve the old patterns of speech has resulted in some propagating a false etymology that states the -man is not a reference to a person at all and is, therefore, not sexist. This ill-informed view states that the -man comes from the Latin manus, meaning hand, that the chairman is the hand of the one sitting in the chair guiding the meeting. This is complete bunk.
(Source Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton