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empty chair

verb [transitive]

to embarrass a person who refuses to take part in a debate by leaving an empty seat or space which represents them

'David Cameron could be empty chaired in TV debates as Labour accuse him of "running scared …"'

Telegraph 5th March 2015

It seems inconceivable that an unused seat could be the source of a major controversy, but when the media are providing the place to sit, and the intended occupant is the British prime minister, then you can imagine there might be something of a stir. And in the midst of recent commentary on this exact situation there's been a rather interesting bit of lexical fallout. A quirky new compound verb has abruptly splashed the headlines as broadcasters in the UK have suddenly been talking about threatening to empty chair David Cameron in relation to a proposed series of televised debates.

it is not clear whether the verb empty chair is just a linguistic flash in the pan or will become a more enduring feature of political

On 7th May 2015 the UK will hold its next general election, with the British public invited to vote on the make-up of a new government and thereby the identity of their next prime minister. To help them decide on their voting allegiances, a group of broadcasters proposed a series of television debates in the weeks leading up to the big day. Analogous to a run of similar television programmes in 2010, these debates would feature the leaders of all major UK political parties, with the addition of a separate 'head-to-head' debate between Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron and Ed Milliband, leader of the Labour Party and main opposition.

Predictably however, the debates themselves have been hotly, well … debated, sparking a catalogue of wrangling and disagreement between politicians and the media. The proverbial icing on the cake was Mr Cameron's ultimate refusal to participate in the debates as the broadcasters had conceived them and stipulation of an alternative set of conditions under which he would be prepared to take part. Cue the verb empty chair, previously bubbling under but now spicing up headlines amidst a flurry of speculation on what might happen and the eventual announcement that broadcasters would stick to their guns and stage the debates as originally planned – including, if necessary, leaving an empty space for Mr Cameron on the set.

The verb empty chair has therefore emerged as the accepted description of the action of embarrassing a person, especially a politician, by leaving an empty chair, podium space, etc, to represent them at the venue for a discussion in which they've declined to participate. The verb works transitively with a person as its object, so you can talk about empty charing Mr/Ms X, or Mr/Ms X being empty chaired.

As I write it remains to be seen whether Mr Cameron will be spared the embarrassment of being empty chaired. Neither is it clear whether the verb itself is just a linguistic flash in the pan or will become a more enduring feature of political terminology. Mindful of the idiosyncratic nature of language change, I've decided that, in relation to the latter issue, I'm: 'unavailable for comment' …

Background – empty chair

Use of the phrase empty chair, or empty chairing, in relation to the practice of drawing attention to a politician's refusal to show up, dates at least as far back as 2007, though its realization as an inflected verb seems to be new in the past year. The phrase also hit the headlines in the context of the US election in 2012, when veteran actor Clint Eastwood attracted controversy by conducting an imaginary conversation with Barack Obama during a Republican convention.

Empty chair is also an established term in the US legal system, where an empty chair defense describes the practice of allocating blame to an unnamed, 'absent' party.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 17th March 2015.

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