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 thesaurus.com: 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.