[ ODO: ] examination-in-chief [mass noun] {Law}
The questioning of a witness by the party which has called that witness to give evidence, in support of the case being made. Compare with cross-examine.

[ OED: ] a. Formal interrogation, esp. of a witness, or an accused person. examination-in-chief, that made by the party calling the witness.

OED does not explain the semantics of (the prepositional phrase) in-chief.
How did 'in-chief' compound with examination (whose etymology I know) to produce the meaning above? I also know the etymology of the noun chief.

  • 1
    Your link to the OED requires a subscriber login; and your link to the ODO gives "no exact match found". – TrevorD May 11 '16 at 23:36
  • @TrevorD Unfortunately, I do not think that OED cannot be accessed freely? I fixed the link to the ODO. Thanks. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal May 11 '16 at 23:38

The word 'chief' derives from Old French chief "leader, ruler, head", as you know. This word in Old French evolved into the Modern French word 'chef' (as you probably also know).

Now, in French, the phrase 'en [something]' very roughly translates to 'in [something]". In reality the preposition 'en' is a really slippery thing to translate, and can mean "at", "as", "(made out) of", "while", "via", etc. but its main use is in describing the qualities of things. 'en guerre' means "at war", 'en fait' means "in fact", 'en colère' means "in rage (angry)", 'en route' means, well, "en route (on the way)". English has borrowed a lot of things from French, one of its closest neighbors, and a lot of these 'en [something]' phrases have made their way into English one way or another.

You probably see where I'm going with this. The phrase 'en chef', literally "in chief", means "chief" or "head". 'Infirmier en chef' means "head nurse", 'ingénieur en chef' means "chief engineer", and of course, 'commandant en chef' means "commander in chief". So in English the phrase "in chief" has gained the meaning of "head", "principal", and by extension "primary" or "main".

What is an 'examination-in-chief'? It's the questioning of a witness by the party (the defense, the prosecution) that has called that witness to the stand. It's the "principal examination" taking place, and the cross-examination afterwards to clear up loose ends is secondary to it. So the phrase 'in-chief' is attached to the word "examination".

  • 2
    This is a fine answer but for my niggling concern about cross-examination. In the US, examination-in-chief is called direct examination, and it's the principal questioning because the witness may answer any question about admissible matters. Cross-examination is done by the opposing party, and its purpose is not to "clear up loose ends," but to challenge the testimony just given. Cross is "secondary" because it's limited to the answers given during direct. – deadrat May 12 '16 at 1:47

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.