Witness – definition and meaning

The term witness has several possible meanings – it can be used as a noun or verb. As a noun, witness may mean an individual who testifies under oath in a trial, a person who saw an event, or somebody who observes the signing of a will, contract, or any document, attesting that it was signed in their presence.

The verb ‘to witness‘ means to see an event happen, or to be present when somebody signs something and confirms it with their signature.

The adjective of the term is witnessable, which means something that can be witnessed, as in the term: “Remember that your behavior in public is witnessable by others.”

According to Legal-Dictionar.theFreeDictionary.com, a witness is:

“1) n. a person who testifies under oath in a trial (or a deposition which may be used in a trial if the witness is not available) with first-hand or expert evidence useful in a lawsuit. A party to the lawsuit (plaintiff or defendant) may be a witness.”

“2) a person who sees an event. 3) a person who observes the signing of a document like a will or a contract and signs as a witness on the document attesting that the document was signed in the presence of the witness.”

“4) v. to sign a document verifying that he/she observed the execution of the document such as a will.”

Witness types in courtThere are many different types of witnesses. They all have one thing in common in a court of law: they give information (testimony) which is used as evidence for either the prosecution or defense.

Witness in a court proceeding

Either the defense or prosecution can call the witness to testify. The side that does this first asks questions – in legal English this is called a direct examination

The other or opposing side can then ask their own questions – they carry out a a cross examination. A redirect examination occurs when one of the sides calls the person who provided testimony to contradict what was said in the cross examination,

The term recalling a witness means calling a person, who has already given testimony in court, to give further testimony.

In most jurisdictions (countries’ legal systems), witnesses may not testify about something they were told – hearsay. They are only allowed to testify to what they experienced directly – first hand.

Expert witnesses, however, may testify in the area of their expertise – they do not need to have experienced an event first hand.

Witness vs. Testimony (nouns): the former is a person while testimony comprises the (legal) statements made in court by that person, because they saw what happened first hand. In other words, one refers to people while the other is the information they gave in court.

Etymology of witness

Etymology is the study of the origin of words, and how their meanings evolved over time. Somebody who specializes in etymology is an etymologist.

The noun of this term comes from the Old English word Witnes, meaning “attestation of fact, event, etc., from personal knowledge,” as well as “one who so testifies.” The first recording of the term Witness Stand – in a court of law – appeared in the English language in 1853.

The verb, with the meaning to “bear testimony” dates back to 13th century England. Meaning “add one’s signature to a document to establish its identity” dates back to the early 14th century. In the 1580s, the meaning to “see or know by personal presence, observe” emerged.

Witness ProtectionSometimes providing testimony in a criminal court is dangerous. Throughout modern history, evil people have either killed witnesses or arranged for them to be killed in order to stay out of prison. When witnesses are threatened, or deemed to be under threat, they will be protected by the police or a special protection unit, depending on the country. (Image: Wikipedia)

Video – Being a witness

This British Department of Justice video talks about what it is like going to court through the eyes of somebody who had to testify. The animation explains what to expect throughout the court process (in the United Kingdom), and follows the journey an individual makes from making a statement right through the criminal court process after the trial.