General English

Information & Library Science

  • adjective denoting the most important person or part of something


  • adjective the most senior or important


  • adjective stupid or pretentious. The adjectival use has been fashionable among younger speakers across the UK since the late 1990s.
  • noun a foolish or obnoxious individual, a misfit. A vogue term from the language of adolescent gangs, also recorded in the late 1980s among aficionados of dance culture. The term was in use among North London schoolboys in 1993 and 1994. (‘Chief’ occurs in North American usage, the ‘bod’ form is exclusively British.).

Origin & History of “chief”

Etymologically, the chief is the ‘head’. The word comes via Old French chef or chief and vulgar Latin *capum from Latin caput ‘head’. The adjectival use is equally as old as the noun use in English. other English offshoots of *capum are cape and, via the diminutive form *capitellus, cadet, and it also forms the basis of achieve. The form which has come through into modern French is, of course, chef, which entered English in the sense ‘cook’ (short for chef de cuisine ‘head of the kitchen’) in the 19th century.

Chieftain (14th c.) comes via Old French chevetaine from late Latin capitāneus (a derivative of caput ‘head’), which was later reborrowed as captain.