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Fans of the American TV show, Law & Order, may be familiar with the procedure called voir dire, whereby lawyers interrogate would-be-members of the jury in order to select jurors who will be impartial, and not show favouritism to either the defendant or the plaintiff.

Wikipedia describes the origins of the legal expression below

The word voir (or voire), in this combination, comes from Old French and derives from Latin verum, "[that which is] true". It is related to the modern French word voire, which in a deprecated use can mean "indeed", but not to the more common word voir, "to see", which derives from Latin vidēre [in modern Italian vedere]. William Blackstone referred to it as veritatem dicere, which was translated by John Winter Jones as "To speak the truth". However, the expression is now often interpreted by false etymology to mean "to see [them] say". The term is used (as le voir-dire) in modern Canadian legal French.

Google tells me that the origin of the Italian verb, vedere, dates back to the 13th century Latin vidēre. There are seven meanings of the Latin verb video (paradigm: vidĕo, vides, vīdi, vīsum, vidēre)

  1. to see, watch, perceive (with one's sight), catch a glimpse of
  2. (figurative) to see with the mind; to notice, realise, comprehend, understand
  3. (figurative) to think, consider, evaluate, reflect, ponder on
  4. (by extension) to look after, to take care of, be busy with, deal with, attend to, to do something; e.g a task, job etc.
  5. (by extension) seeing, witnessing, being present at, attending to
  6. (by extension) to foresee, predict, foreshadow, forebode
  7. (in the passive voice) seem, appear, opinion, view, be believed, look as/like, to have a certain reputation

Esse Quam Videri (to be rather than to seem)

None of the aforementioned meanings specifically include "(telling/saying the) truth"

The Latin translations for "speak the truth" can be: dicere veritatem, dicere verum and veritatem dicere (there may be others but I am not a Latin scholar, far from it).

How did William Blackstone and John Winter Jones translate voir dire (a French phrase) to "speak the truth" when it literally translates as "to see say”?

Etymonline claims it first appearance was in the 1670s.

  • Exactly when was this legal expression coined, and by whom?
  • Can anyone provide further details to its peculiar history and usage?
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  • I have heard the "dire" to mean direct voice: "Allowing attorneys to pose questions directly to jurors". Dec 27, 2022 at 14:40
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    voir, to see or witness, to witness someone saying something. From the Latin: videre, whereas the term voire which is an adverb comes from Latin also, comes from this: Du lat. vera, plur. neutre pris adverbialement de l'adj. verus « vrai, véritable, réel, juste, sincère ». cnrtl.fr/definition/voire
    – Lambie
    Dec 27, 2022 at 16:23
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    Blackstone: A juror may himself be examined on oath of voir dire, veritatem dicere, with regard to the three former of these causes of challenge, which are not to his dishonour; but not with regard to this head of challenge, propter delictum, which would be to make him either forswear or accuse himself, if guilty. To witness the truth be spoken. or See the truth spoken.
    – Lambie
    Dec 27, 2022 at 16:39

3 Answers 3

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OED gives the year 1676 for the earliest attestation of the term voir dire:

1676    T. W. Office of Clerk of Assize G j    Such person so produced for a witness, may be examined upon a Voire Dire.

Per its etymology in OED, it is a borrowing from Old French and the translations are provided as below:

Old French voir true, the truth + dire to say.

The citations from 1701 and 1768 provided in OED are important also to understand its meaning in law and the Latin version veritatem dicere is mentioned in the citation from 1768:

1701    W. Kennett Cowell's Interpreter (new ed.) sig. Mmm2a    When it is pray'd upon a Trial at Law, that a Witness may be sworn upon a Voir dire; the meaning is, he shall upon his Oath speak or declare the truth.

1768    W. Blackstone Comm. Laws Eng. III. 332    If however the court has, upon inspection, any doubt of the age of the party,..it may..examine the infant himself upon an oath of voir dire, veritatem dicere, that is, to make true answer to such questions as the court shall demand of him.

Note: Old French is the French language of an earlier period (between the 9th and the early 14th centuries). I believe the term voir dire was borrowed into Anglo-Norman (the variety of the French language spoken and written in medieval England after the Norman Conquest) or more likely into Law French (used in English law from c. 13th century until c. 17th century) which is an archaic language based on Old Norman and Anglo-Norman. However, some terms survived till today which are used in law, like the term voir dire. Here is a relevant excerpt from Wikipedia's Law French article about how the meaning of voir dire is different from modern French:

literally "to say the truth"; the word voir (or voire) in this combination comes from Old French and derives from Latin verum, "that which is true". It is not related to the modern French word voir, which derives from Latin video ("I see"); but instead to the adverb voire ("even", from Latin vera, "true things") as well as the adjective vrai ("true") as in the fossilised expression à vrai dire ("to say the truth").

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  • Wiktionary shows the French etymology of voir is derived from Latin, but it does not say anything about voir also meaning truth (veritus/verum) instead its primary meanings are listed as see, understand and visit
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 27, 2022 at 15:05
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    This entry from CNRTL supports the etymology of voire from Latin vera, meaning true. cnrtl.fr/definition/voire Dec 27, 2022 at 16:10
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    @Mari-LouA: You need to look lower down on that page to see the relevant information: since "voir" in the sense true/truth is not used in modern French, it is categorized on Wiktionary as Old French, which goes in a separate section: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/voir#Old_French
    – herisson
    Dec 28, 2022 at 2:07
  • @herisson My post's attracted three downvotes and someone voting to close it for lack of research–this always happens to me. Is it any wonder that researched and supported questions are rarely seen on EL&U nowadays? I post what I thought was a useful and interesting question and this is my "reward". Yes, in the end I made a foolish mistake. The wikipedia citation actually contained the answer. C'est la vie!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Dec 28, 2022 at 8:17
  • @Mari-LouA: I am glad you posted the question—it was a new and interesting piece of information to me! The presence of the Wiktionary entry surely does not invalidate the question: plenty of questions posted here have an answer somewhere in some online resource. You linked to the research you did in the question too. I just wanted to point out a source supporting this answer
    – herisson
    Dec 28, 2022 at 10:59
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The quote you provide gives the answer to your question. The two French words, voir and voire, are homophones, but they mean two different things, and have different (Latin) etymologies. While the legal phrase is usually spelt "voir dire" because of the confusion in meaning described by the quote, it is the word "voire" that is meant, and this word derives from the Latin "verum" meaning truth. Blackstone, knowing his Latin, correctly translated the phrase as "saying the truth". The French verb "voir" (to see) derives from the Latin "video" and is unrelated to "verum". However, because the two are homophones, the legal phrase in question is open to misinterpretation.

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  • Blackstone said: "A juror may himself be examined on oath of voir dire, veritatem dicere, with regard to the three former of these causes of challenge, which are not to his dishonour; but not with regard to this head of challenge, propter delictum, which would be to make him either forswear or accuse himself, if guilty", which would translate as: to see or witness the truth be spoken.
    – Lambie
    Dec 27, 2022 at 16:34
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    As the quote in ermanen's answer says, French "voire" comes from the Latin form vera (ending in -a) while "voir" comes from the Latin form verum (ending in -um). Latin final -a regularly developed to French final -e while Latin final -um was lost: compare French masculine fier and feminine fière from Latin ferum and fera respectively. So the use of the form voir in the phrase "voir dire" does not need to be attributed to confusion between "voir" and "voire": they are separate but related word-forms.
    – herisson
    Dec 28, 2022 at 2:14
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You went down the wrong rabbit hole. Please reread your excerpt. It indicates that the voir at hand is not related to "the more common word voir, 'to see', which derives from Latin vidēre [in modern Italian vedere]."

In other words, the Italian vedere and the Latin vidēre are irrelevant here.

Voir, from Old French, means the truth:

voir dire, n.
Forms: Also voire dire.
Etymology: < Old French voir true, the truth + dire to say.
Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

The Old French voir comes from Latin verus "true," from PIE root *were-o- "true, trustworthy").
Source: Online Etymology Dictionary — voir dire

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