Stupid Question ™
Aug. 15, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Why is the head of a periodical often called the “editor-in-chief” instead of “chief editor”? Is “in-chief” used with any title other than “editor”?
A: Surely the most famous “in-chief” is “Commander-in-Chief,” a military position granted to the president by the Constitution. It’s probably the model for “editor-in-chief,’ which is the only other major use of the formula.
The word “chief” ultimately goes right back to Latin caput or “head,” and by the late 1200s was applied figuratively to a leader of men. By the 1300s it was being used as a title (say, Chief Bottlewasher).
The phase “in chief” comes from the medieval feudal law of property rights and obligations. It reached us from medieval Latin in capite through French en chef, in both cases meaning “from the head.” It was mostly used in the form “tenant in chief”—a landholder who got land and power directly from the king rather than by cutting a deal with somebody lower down the food chain.
By 1600, “in chief” had become a generic phrase with its modern meaning of “mainly” or “principally.” But it also retained the titular formula of “tenant in chief.”
Early citations include: to “direct in chiefe” and someone who “commanded an army in chief.” In 1639, “Commander-in-Chief” became an actual title when Charles I appointed one for wartime. (Commander had already become a common term for a military officer.)
It remained a British, then American, military term thereafter. In past and present British colonies, the governor was/is the commander-in-chief. In 1775 the Continental Congress named George Washington “General and Commander-in-Chief” of the Army; later the Constitution named the president Commander-in-Chief of the Army, Navy and state militias.
The term was also applied to the leaders of specific detachments or expeditionary forces. Until earlier this summer, there were actually many “commanders-in-chief” in the US military—for example, “Commander-in-Chief, US Atlantic Fleet.” But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently ordered that they be ranked only as “Commanders,” reserving the “in Chief” bit for the president.
Besides lower “commanders-in-chief,” the military has often had a welter of “colonels-in-chief,” “generals-in-chief” and so forth, so called if they were leading a special unit or detachment.
As for “editor,” it developed its modern titular meaning only around 1800. It took another 50 years for mastheads to become cluttered with all those “associate editors,” “managing editors” and similar mysterious titles. In the 1870s, “editor-in-chief” started appearing as a way to trump all the others. (“Editor” surely looked naked next to all the other lengthy titles.)
“Editor-in-chief” was probably used because in the post-Civil War period, “commander-in-chief” was a very familiar term, as were the “colonel-in-chief,” etc. variants. It sounds much more imperial and mirrors the military’s hierarchy.
But the “in chief” formula has not spread much since then, probably because it looks so pompous. However, “referee-in-chief” seems to be gaining ground in hockey. You can also find a “surgeon-in-chief” at Yale, a “radiologist-in-chief” at Harvard, and even an “otolaryngologist-in-chief” at McGill.