Le grande fromage.

Dear Word Detective:  As someone who has recently found himself designated “Editor-in-Chief” of a new-born enterprise, I am wondering why “in” vice “and” — which is also the case, of course, for “Commander-in-Chief.”  Is it as simple as a semi-literal translation of the French, “rédacteur en chef” (where “en” is usually rendered “in”)?  Or does the French imply a subtlety that has been lost in English?  Even accounting the etymology from Latin “caput” (head), translation as “and” seems more appropriate. — Drako Artemesius.

That’s a darn good question. Incidentally, before we begin, I should explain, for the benefit of folks who suddenly felt a bit dizzy midway through your first sentence, that “vice” as you used it is a preposition meaning “in the place of” or “instead of.”  It’s the ablative form of the Latin noun “vicis,” meaning “turn” or “place,” and has nothing to do with Miami Vice and all those awesome pastels.

I first became aware of the title “Editor-in-Chief” when I was about ten years old and discovered that my father was Editor-in-Chief of Grosset & Dunlap publishers (now part of Penguin). I’m sure that Grosset produced many fine books, but my interest began and ended with the fact that they also published the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Steve Canyon and Tom Swift Jr. books I loved. It was better than having a father who owned a doughnut shop.

The title “Editor-in-Chief” in book publishing, newspapers and similar fields means essentially “editor in charge,” the person who oversees the editorial and production processes leading up to publication. As a fixed phrase, “Editor-in-Chief” dates back only to the late 19th century (“Our highest ambition has been to be the editor-in-chief of a large New York daily…,” J. M. Bailey, Life in Danbury 1873). “Chief” itself is, of course, much older, dating back to the 14th century, and, as you noted, ultimately based on the Latin “caput,” meaning “head,” though that was filtered through the Old French form “chef” before Middle English borrowed it.

The simplest explanation for the form “in chief” is that it’s simply a short form of a phrase such as “in the position of chief.” But the use of “in Chief” in titles such as “Editor-in-Chief” and “Commander-in-Chief” may be rooted at least partially in Feudal Law, where a tenant, usually a member of the nobility, held land leased directly from the King or other ruler of the country (rather than from someone lower on the food chain), a state called tenancy “in chief” (in French, “en chief” or “en chef”). This arrangement gave the “tenant-in-chief” authority and a stable position from which to rent land to sub-tenants, etc.

While there’s no direct connection between “tenant-in-chief” and “editor-in-chief” and similar titles apart from the connotation of supreme power, the feudal use of the construction “in chief” probably contributed to its later use in a general sense to mean “in control and command.” This “in charge” meaning was established in English by the early 17th century (“Thinke it more honor, to direct in chiefe, then to be busie in all,” Francis Bacon, 1607). The even more general use of “in chief” to mean “mainly” or “principally” appeared at about the same time, first appearing (as far as we know) in Shakespeare’s play Measure for Measure in 1603 (“Some speech of marriage … which was broke off … in chief for that her reputation was disvalued in levity”).

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