Secular Usage of “Preside”

In a discussion last year at T&S about what it means for a husband to preside, Jim F. argued that it doesn’t really matter what preside means outside the Church because the word just isn’t much used outside the Church (and perhaps court). Kiskilili disagreed, saying that she thought that secular usage was more common.

At the time, it occurred to me that this would be a relatively simple question to get data to answer, but I put the thought on the back burner, so I am just now getting around to trying to answer it. I chose to search newspapers to attempt to answer the question, given that they tend to have a very broad target audience and are fairly widely read (although I know they aren’t read as much as they used to be).

1. Is preside ever used in a secular context?

Yes, it is, with some regularity. I used LexisNexis to search US newspapers and wires for any documents including preside, presided, or presiding, and found 1475 matches between November 1st and the 18th.

Certainly this includes some uses in a religious context. For example, a story on the Fort Worth Episcopal Diocese’s disagreement with the Episcopal Church over homosexuality (sound familiar?) mentions the presiding bishop of the national church. It’s also true that many of the stories are duplicates: for example, AP stories can appear many times because they are printed in many newspapers. But even given these caveats, there are clearly many, many secular uses of preside in US newspapers. Let me give you just a few examples, all from November 18th:

  • In an article about citizens of the Marshall Islands who live in Arkansas voting by absentee ballot, the government of the Marshall Islands is described: “The elected lower house of parliament has 33 senate seats in 24 districts. The upper house is composed of 12 tribal chiefs who inherit their titles who can also serve as senators. Mayors and town councils preside at the local level.” (“Northwest Ark. Marhsallese vote in island election” AP)
  • It is written of an orchestra conductor that “He presided over what may be the most attractive orchestra in the world” and that he “presided over an invigorating account of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.” (“Berlin Philharmonic Performs With Kids” AP)
  • A Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice who failed to divulge a conflict of interest “presided over 11 cases involving the West Bend Savings Bank without disclosing her husband, J.J. Ziegler, was one of the bank’s paid directors.” (“Panel to hear arguments in case of sitting Supreme Court justice” AP)
  • A man honored for volunteering at the Atlanta Botanical Garden “led a program for preschoolers called Flower Hour, where he presided in a homemade flower hat.” (“Garden volunteer reaps honor” November 18, Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
  • The mayor of Houston sees a City Council elected that agrees with his agenda: “starting next year, White should preside over a changed council.” (“White on pace for clear sailing; sympathetic council may help mayor’s agenda, other ambitions” November 18, Houston Chronicle)
  • A juvenile court judge arranges a special adoption day to encourage families to adopt children from the foster care system: “The courthouse that typically deals with child abuse and neglect cases was holding an annual Adoption Saturday event, an idea conceived about 10 years ago by Judge Michael Nash, who presides over Los Angeles County’s Juvenile Court, to make it easier for children in the county’s foster care system to be adopted.” (“After a day in court, hundreds of kids have homes; Children’s Court in Monterey Park was a happy place on Adoption Saturday. L.A. County foster children left with new families.” Los Angeles Times)
  • From a description of a restaurant in a small Florida town: “A local blues musician presided in the dining room, crooning to his dobro, while diners tucked into a menu of traditional fare.” (“A Little Bit Country” New York Times)
  • Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. discusses the class divide among American Blacks: “I asked the conservative scholar James Q. Wilson and the liberal scholar William Julius Wilson if ours was the generation presiding over an irreversible, self-perpetuating class divide within the African-American community.” (“Forty Acres and a Gap in Wealth” New York Times)
  • In a discussion of a museum exhibit on lowriders (cars): “The Ruelas brothers, Julio, Fernando and Ernie, arrived from Tijuana with their mother in the mid-1950s. In 1962, they formed their own car club, the Dukes, as an alternative to the neighborhood gang and have presided as venerated elder statesmen of the lowriding world.” (“Inches Above the Road And in The Man’s Face” New York Times)
  • From an opinion piece about Rudy Giuliani: “A full-service mayor to his cronies, Mr. Giuliani lobbied hard to get the Fox News Channel on the city’s cable boxes and presided over Mr. Ailes’s wedding.” (“What ‘That Regan Woman’ Knows” New York Times)
  • An article describes a new system for obstetricians where they deliver babies only a few days a month, but on those days they deliver all the babies in the hospital: “With a resident’s help, Lee [an obstetrician working in the new system] did three Caesarean sections and presided over the births of five more babies, including a set of twins, on the day of Sabriah’s birth.” (“Stork Tries a New Strategy” Philadelphia Inquirer)
  • An editorial calling this the end of the Reagan era: “One of the triumphs of Reaganism is that it presided over the Cold War and at least hastened the end of Communism.” (End of an era but not the one you think. We now bid farewell to Reagan” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
  • A discussion of John Edwards criticizing Hillary Clinton: “Mr. Edwards didn’t mention Mrs. Clinton by name. Yet the message was clear: Her husband, as president, presided over a period of democratic decline. She represents the status quo.” (“Edwards in N.H. puts heat on Bush and Clinton” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
  • From a Q-and-A with the CEO of Verizon Wireless: “Wall Street Journal Tech Columnist Walt Mossberg recently called cell phone companies the equivalent of ‘Soviet ministries’ for presiding over oligopolies that don’t serve consumers.” (“Verizon chief: Market drives us” San Jose Mercury News)

Have your eyes glazed over yet? Here’s what I think is interesting. Preside is most often used, as Jim F. anticipated, to describe judges in their courts. But as these examples show, it’s also used in many other non-religious non-court contexts. And you’ll notice that, at least in these examples, it’s used in its traditional sense to mean something like “being in charge of” rather than in its new Mormon sense where it ostensibly means “being an equal partner with.”

2. Is the secular usage of preside in decline?

To answer this question, I counted how many documents in the LexisNexis file of US newspapers and wires included preside, presided, or presiding for the last 30 years or so. Actually, I ran into a small difficulty with getting too many results: LexisNexis wouldn’t say how many matches there were if it were more than 3000. To reduce the number of matches, rather than counting for every day in a year, I counted only 12 days1 each year to serve as a sample.

One other difficulty I encountered was that the size of the LexisNexis database has clearly changed over time, with more publications being available in electronic format in recent years. To correct for this, I also counted documents including five other words2 listed in a thesaurus as being similar to preside. Then I calculated the number of documents matching preside as a percentage of all the documents matching any of the six words (preside plus the five similar words) in each year from 1977 to 2007. Here’s a plot of the results:


Hmm. Perhaps preside is in decline, although it looks like the decrease was all from 1977 to 1994, and usage has been flat since. I don’t know what the decline could mean, assuming it’s for real. Is it a reflection of less discussion of religion going on in American newspapers?

3. Are there any words that are ours?

This is only tangentially related, but looking at usage of preside got me to wondering whether there are words that are only used in an LDS church context. I found at least one: tract, used as a verb. A LexisNexis search for tracted or tracting (I left out tract to avoid matches to the noun) for the entire year of 2007 turned up only 7 references. Three of these were references to LDS missionaries tracting (from the Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret News) and the remainder were errors, where words “attracted” and “distracted” were hyphenated and their parts matched tracted. There were, then, precisely zero non-LDS uses of tract as a verb. This is an example of a word that we can redefine at will. Preside does not appear to be such a word, as it still gets at least some use in the world outside the Church.


1. These are the 12 sample days used each year: January 11, February 12, March 13, April 14, May 15, June 16, July 17, August 18, September 19, October 20, November 21, and December 22. November 21 and December 22 were excluded from the 2007 sample because they haven’t happened yet.

2. These are the five words similar to preside according to govern, manage, officiate, oversee, supervise. As with preside I also searched for alternate forms of these words, such as governed and governing with govern, for example. I chose these five words and excluded the others to avoid problems with spurious matches with the same words under different definitions. Lead, for example, was sure to turn up a bunch of 2007 stories about lead in toys, for example, in addition to stories about people leading companies.


  1. Nice analysis, Ziff!

    I don’t know why, but for some reason the idea of Bill Clinton “presiding” makes me laugh.

  2. I was surprised at how many of your examples were mocking/joking as in:

    “led a program for preschoolers called Flower Hour, where he presided in a homemade flower hat.”

  3. I’d love an analysis of how many of the lexisnexis results had females presiding. I only see men on your list, and a couple unspecified, but no women.

  4. Good point, Julie, about the examples not all being serious. I wonder if there’s a pattern to that. Does it mean the word is on its way out as a serious word in common usage?

    Cchrissy, good question about men versus women being said as presiding. I think I ran into at least a few examples of women presiding as judges, but I didn’t put them in the list because I already had one judge example. That pattern might be interesting to examine more generally. I guess it wouldn’t be too surprising if most secular uses of preside referred to men just like the religious uses.

  5. An interesting question is what are these secular presiders actually _doing_ when they preside? Take the Bill Clinton example. John Edwards implies that Bill Clinton had some control over the democratic culture, because Clinton was responsible as our democracy declined on his watch.

    Even the non-serious examples of “presiding” seem to indicate the presider has (1) some degree of control over the proceedings, or (2) a special status that elevates the presider over the presidees. I think it’s this measure of control that makes people nervous when “presiding” is used in the context of husbands presiding over wives.

  6. Does it really matter? Men get to do something that women don’t get to do. That’s unfair no matter what the thing in question is.

  7. I’ve always understood “preside” to mean “present and at least nominally responsible for what happens here.” I’m not sure it’s ever quite meant “in charge” in the way that, say, “manage” does to me. I see a professor presiding over a class involved in small group projects, or the Queen of England presiding over Parliament. Even a judge in a courtroom is mostly there to make sure things go the way everyone has already agreed they should, and to put a stamp of approval on things at the end.

    Anyway, I don’t think “preside” precludes an equal partnership in actually getting things done. It just means someone has to be officially in charge and be responsible to third parties when the discussion comes to the proceedings in question, whether that be an appeals court looking to overturn on procedural grounds or Heavenly Father looking into why a particular kid went astray. We can’t all have the same procedural role, because some things just can’t be done by more than one entity. See also custody disputes (and ask me sometime what it’s like to have your parents be 1500 miles apart but have “joint physical custody.”)

    I regrettably care very little about “men getting to do things that women can’t.” I don’t feel oppressed, I feel bad that other people do, but it just doesn’t get me worked up either way. The word usage question is, however, interesting to me.

  8. I don’t think “preside” precludes an equal partnership in actually getting things done. It just means someone has to be officially in charge and be responsible to third parties when the discussion comes to the proceedings in question

    Sarah, I disagree. I don’t see any such need for one person to be in charge, even if only “officially.” It seems more likely to me that we’ve concocted this need after the fact to justify maintaining that men must preside in families while at the same time saying that husbands and wives should be equal partners.

    But this issue has been discussed at length in the bloggernacle (see for example the T&S thread I linked to in the post, or Kiskilili’s post back at the beginning of this year, or Caroline’s recent post on Exponent II). With this post, I was just wanting to look at one particular point made in this round-and-round argument: the question of whether the Church can freely redefine preside to mean whatever we want because it’s not used anymore in the world at large. I think the answer is no, we can’t assume that the word is dead in the world because it isn’t.

    I’m sorry I didn’t make this more clear in the original post. ECS nicely connected my point to the larger discussion in #6 above. Thanks, ECS!

  9. It seems that in many of the situations, the presiding officers are responsible for making sure that business gets done in the proper way, not necessarily in doing the business itself. In like manner, I think husbands and fathers are responsible for making sure that the work of the home is conducted in the proper way – which includes (perhaps primarily) an absence of unrighteous dominion – and that fathers and mothers are both (equally) responsible for doing the work of the home.

  10. Ziff,
    Amazing research. I can’t believe you figured this out, let alone had time to put it together!
    (I wonder what items were you neglecting to preside over while doing this research?)
    I think your point is well taken that the word “preside” is still used generally. I also agree that we have redefined it in the church, but I think there is some disagreement on that point. Perhaps we haven’t redefined “preside” as much as we haven’t explained why our presiding is okay and other’s is bad.
    Today I was reading Richard Bushman’s Rough Stone Rolling, and he mentions priesthood authority is counter to our democratic culture that expects checks and balances to mitigate institutional power. According to Bushman, Joseph Smith thought that righteousness was all the check that priesthood leaders needed. So, presiding was good, because those who presided did so as would Jesus Christ. It seems to me that the way we think of presiding being opposed to equality is something that Joseph Smith would have rejected.
    Maybe our current view of preside/equality language reflects our democratic culture and history more than the culture and history of the early church.

  11. LOL Jessawhy. You caught me. I’ve totally been shirking my presiding duties while fiddling with LexisNexis. 🙂

    I can see what you’re saying about discomfort with “presiding” comes from a secular perspective, where we now think it’s unfair to exclude classes of people from holding positions of authority, rather than from a religious one. Regarding explaining why our presiding is okay and others’ is bad (am I understanding right that you mean presiding in the Church versus in the world?) I wonder if the issue isn’t even more basic, namely, whether there’s reason to think that the presiding that men are supposed to do in their families is different from all the secular presiding we see going on. I think that’s what Elder Oaks was addressing in his 2005 Conference talk. To me, this type of discussion just sounds like we’re trying to maintain the traditional “man in charge” position while at the same time softening it up with lots of “equal partners in marriage” talk so as not to sound completely sexist.

    Tona, I think that’s an excellent suggestion! I would love to see it happen in Conference, especially. Also, I would have found such a system helpful when i was a deacon and wasn’t quite sure which stake people presided in sacrament meeting (and so should get the sacrament before the bishop) and which ones didn’t.

  12. I think that’s totally right about trying to have it both ways. If “preside” really means “be equal partners,” why not just change all the references to “preside” to say exactly that? The pro-preside side has it in their power to prove their sincerity and end this debate, and it speaks volumes that they won’t. It’s so objectionable to ask women to allow someone to “preside” over them when there isn’t even a clear definition of what the word means.

  13. At least in the legal context, presiding can indeed occur while maintaining a certain level of equality. Chief Justices preside over the court, but everyone only has one vote. By tradition, Chief Justices also have some influence, and by choosing who writes the decision they may influence the jurisprudential outcome. But the vote of a Chief Justice is no greater than that of his or her colleagues. I only mention it as a secular illustration of presiding and equality.

  14. Peter – that’s a nice analogy, but “a certain level” of equality is not equality. By presiding over the court, the Chief Justice retains a fair amount of power over the outcome of a case. And whether the CJ chooses to exercise this power is within her sole discretion.

  15. I think what Julie’s comment (that “presiding” is often silly) gets at is that “preside” frequently means to have a dominating presence–whether because a person is in fact in charge (and potentially sports the trappings emblematic of their position) or, less literally, because they draw attention to themselves whether or not they occupy a position of actual power. This is the usage that the “Sugar Beet” exploits in their famous advertisement for Patriarchy Cologne: “When you walk into the room, there’s no question who’s presiding.”

    Ever since I had this argument online I’ve been hyperaware of secular usages of the term, which I feel like I encounter everywhere. In spite of the fact that the term can be metaphorically extended as I illustrate above, or that it does not usually refer to hands-on direct control or responsibility but rather to a position of ultimate (and non-immediate) authority, I still find it incompatible with equal partnership, particularly given the problem that we repeatedly claim preside does not mean what it seems to mean without specifying what exactly it does mean.


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