The Grammarphobia Blog

Voir dire

Q: I recently served on a jury and one of the attorneys explained that jury selection is called “voir dire.” He said the term comes from French and means to look inside and speak up. This didn’t sound accurate to me, so I looked it up and learned it’s a false etymology. So what is the true etymology?

A: The Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary defines “voir dire” (pronounced vwahr deer) as “a preliminary examination to determine the competency of a witness or juror.”

The dictionary describes it as an Anglo-French expression derived from Old French, the French spoken in the Middle Ages. The ultimate source of the usage is the Latin verus (truth) and decire (to speak).

So etymologically the phrase doesn’t mean “look and speak,” but “speak the truth.”  

The earliest example of the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary is a 1676 record from the Office of Clerk of Assize: “Such person so produced for a witness, may be examined upon a Voire Dire.”

An OED citation from White Kennett’s 1701 revision of Cowell’s Interpreter, a 1607 law dictionary written by John Cowell, explains the expression this way:

“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.”

The online version of Black’s Law Dictionary offers the following definition:

“This phrase denotes the preliminary examination which the court may make of one presented as a witness or juror, where his competency, interest, etc., is objected to.”

We’ll end with an example of voir dire from the 1992 film My Cousin Vinny:

District Attorney Jim Trotter III: “Ms. Vito, what is your current profession?”

Mona Lisa Vito: “I’m an out-of-work hairdresser.”

DA: “An out-of-work hairdresser. In what way does that qualify you as an expert in automobiles?”

Lisa: “It doesn’t.”

DA: “Well in what way are you qualified?”

Lisa: “Well my father was a mechanic. His father was a mechanic. My mother’s father was a mechanic. My three brothers are mechanics. Four uncles on my father’s side are mechanics …”

DA: “Miss Vito, your family is obviously qualified. But have you ever worked as a mechanic?”

Lisa: “Yeah, in my father’s garage, yeah.”

DA: “As a mechanic. What did you do in your father’s garage?”

Lisa: “Tune-ups, oil changes, brake relining, engine rebuilds; rebuilt some trannies, rear end …”

DA: “OK, OK.”

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