Parsons Chairs and Parsons

By Maeve Maddox

The first time I heard the term parsons chair I immediately imagined that the name derived from some quaint country custom of seating the visiting preacher on the best chair in the parlor.

Not so.

The Parsons chair takes its name from its place of invention: the Parsons School of Design founded in Paris in 1921 by Frank Alvah Parsons.

According to an article on a site called Modern Dining Chairs,

The parsons chair is virtually always crafted of hardwood, and features a slightly curving, squared backrest and legs. They are usually featured with slipcover upholstery that entirely covers the legs and gives the chair a solid, monumental appearance. This slipcover is optional or absent on many recent models.

Furniture retailers don’t seem to agree as to the spelling. You can find Parsons chair, parsons chair, Parson chair and parson chair. Until a chair design expert corrects me, I’ll go with Parsons chair in recognition of the fact that the name comes from a proper noun. However, since “Parsons” is not a commercially-registered word, I’m sure that parsons chair cannot be considered incorrect.

The word parson meaning “clergyman” derives ultimately from the same Latin word that gives us person in the sense of “human being.” The word entered English from Anglo-Fr., O.Fr. persone “curate, parson.”

Person may have come to mean “the person in charge of the local church”
by shortening the Latin phrase persona ecclesiae “person of the church.” I suppose that a pronunciation variant turned “person” into “parson.”

The word parsonage, “house for the parson,” is documented from the 15th century.

The word parson occurs in several English expressions. One that I find amusing is the parson’s nose, a reference to the fatty tail end of a cooked chicken or turkey. My granny used to gross us out by eating that bit. She may have called it the pope’s nose.

Here are some other words used to refer to personnae ecclesiae.

chaplain
clergyman
cleric
curate
pastor
preacher
priest
minister
rector
vicar

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6 Responses to “Parsons Chairs and Parsons”

  • Brad K.

    So – how does curate, as a church person, become the one that I know, a curator? I usually associate curator with museum, as in the one that cares for, organizes, maintains, and manages procurement for a museum.

  • Maeve

    Both words derive from Latin curatus, past participle of curare “to take care of.”

    A curator takes care of the museum; a curate takes care of souls.

  • Brad K.

    @Maeve,

    Thanks!

    Brad K.

  • Tony Hearn

    Yes indeed, ‘person’ changed pronunciation to ‘parson’, but not randomly. This was part of a change that went on in British English, or more specifically English in England, in the 18th century. It didn’t generally occur over the water in the States, however. Thus here in England we say, (but don’t spell, except for ‘Varsity’), ‘clark, Barkeley, Barkshire, Varsity’ etc., where Americans say as spelt, ‘clerk, Berkeley, Berkshire, (uni)versity’ etc. Interestingly, however, we both say ‘farm’ (earlier ‘ferme’) and ‘parson’. As an aside, my surname ‘Hearn’ was in the 18th century often spelt and pronounced’ Harn’ before reverting in the 19th century.

  • mand

    Reminds me of the ‘parson’s nose’ which i now know – and didn’t till i googled ;0) – is the pygostyle of a chicken. I think a turkey’s is the bishop’s nose and a goose’s the Pope’s nose… something like that. {grin}

  • Precise Edit

    Ah–you got me there, Maeve!

    I, too, thought Parsons chair was, as you said, the chair for the parson.

    This is a good example of how we create a definition based on a limited understanding of the word source. Not knowing the true source of the word, we assume that it relates to a similar, known, word, e.g., parson.

    Thanks!

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