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On the antiquity of Presidents

As I continue my reading of Tudor history in Ireland, it suddenly occurred to me that the designation of various Englishmen as 'Presidents' of Munster and Connacht during the reign of Elizabeth I must be one of the earliest examples of the use of the word 'President' in English to refer to a senior government official.

Looking at the Oxbridge colleges, the following were founded before the reign of Elizabeth I and have a President as Head of House: Queens', Cambridge (1448), Magdalen, Oxford (1458), Corpus Christi, Oxford (1517), St John's, Oxford (1555), Trinity, Oxford (also 1555). I don't know if there were other Oxbridge college heads who changed their titles over the centuries (and maybe some of those five were originally called something else).

Are there any other early examples of the word President being used to refer to a senior official, especially a senior government official? Probably the OED would tell me.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 31st, 2011 07:20 pm (UTC)
I think that the first Lord President of the Council was John Dudley, duke of Northumberland, in the reign of Edward VI, the appointment (effectively by himself) being in 1551 or 1552, IIRC. The office lapsed at the end of the reign and wasn't revived until James VI and I needed a suitably grand office with non-specific duties to give someone. Dudley's inspiration, I do not know.
Aug. 31st, 2011 07:28 pm (UTC)
The OED has president as a noun defined as: The appointed governor or lieutenant of a province, or other division of a country, as a colony, city, etc. Also: spec. the governor of a factory or province in India under the East India Company

The earliest source is listed as being in a 1382 translation of the bible 3 Esdras v. 63.

The Dictionary of National Biography describes Andrew Dokett as being named the first president of Queens in letter patent granted on 30 March 1448.
Aug. 31st, 2011 07:37 pm (UTC)
DNB in its entry on Hubert de Burgh (c.1170–1243) mentions the "president of the exchequer".
Also in the DNB Randal Evesham (d. 1229) is described as "president of the Benedictine general chapter for the southern province in 1219 and 1225"
Sep. 1st, 2011 06:12 pm (UTC)
AYKB, 'praesidens' is a medieval Latin word for 'chairman', and 'president' its standard English transliteration.

Of the sources already quoted, the earliest that I think would be in English is the Bible translation referred to by aeglefinus, presumably Wycliffe's. It looks to me as if Wycliffe probably just transliterated the word from Latin, as the word 'chairman' didn't exist at the time (it is apparently first attested in the 1650s). The DNB references, in particular, look to me as if they are based on Latin documents.

Looking at them, all the pre-Elizabethan sources quoted can easily be interpreted as referring to a person whose authority comes from chairing a committee (taken in the general sense of any specified group of people agreeing decisions in a series of meetings). But, of course, the chair of any committee with significant responsibilities is likely to have delegated powers to exercise the responsibilities between meetings. And, from aeglefinus's earliest examples, it looks as if this was the case from the early 13th century or before. And then the word's meaning slowly drifted.

But actually this doesn't seem to be the full explanation. The usual classical word for 'chairman' seems to have been 'praeses' and, at least according to Wikipedia, this was being used for Roman provincial governors by the 3rd century at the latest.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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