Duluth’s mayor, Emily Larson, has proposed changing some of the titles in the government she leads. The “chief administrative officer” would become the “city administrator,” and the “chief financial officer” would be the “finance director.” Commendable notions. Why use three words when two will do?
That’s not why Larson seeks the changes, though. “We are dropping the name ‘chief’ with intention and purpose so we have more inclusive leadership and less language that is rooted in the hurt and offensive and intentional marginalization,” she said, using 30 words when half could have communicated the idea. Which is this: Some people believe the word “chief” is racially insensitive, and we want to fix that.
The problem, however, is that chiefs abound in the English language. The term implies power and significance but not necessarily appropriation.
There are chief executives. Bureau chiefs. Police chiefs and fire chiefs (two titles Larson hinted could also come up for reconsideration in Duluth, although alternatives are left to the imagination). And then there are Indian chiefs, although it was European migrants who called them that, overlaying their own, strictly hierarchical concept of leadership on a Native American social structure that didn’t precisely match it.
And then, also, there are chefs, a similar appellation with a similar meaning. (Both “chef” and “chief” are derived from the Latin caput, which means “head” — head of the kitchen, head of the organization.)
Finally, there are many ways the word “chief” can be used as a modifier.
There are, in fact, thousands of homonyms in the English language — words that are spelled and spoken the same but have different meanings in different contexts. That’s not to say alternatives aren’t worth considering. They might even be easier to understand, as with Larson’s suggestions above.
And it’s not to say “chief” is always used well. For instance, football has nothing to do with Native American culture, yet the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs make the symbolic connection and distort it through activities like the “tomahawk chop” cheer. And certainly there are ill-mannered people throughout society who call others “chief” unthinkingly or even as a pejorative.
The City Council has tabled Larson’s proposal, but this isn’t the last we’ll hear about name changes, in Duluth or elsewhere. (Did you know before this week where Albert Lea got its name?) It’s good to think about how language affects perceptions. It’s also good to keep these impulses grounded.