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early 14c., cheftayne "ruler, chief, head" of something, from Anglo-French chiefteyn, Old French chevetain "captain, chief, leader," from Late Latin capitaneus "commander," from Latin capitis, genitive of caput "head" (see capitulum). According to "Rob Roy" (1818) a Highland chieftain was the head of a branch of a clan, a chief was the head of the whole name. Related: Chieftainship.
political leader of a social group, such as a band, tribe, or confederacy of tribes. Among many peoples, chiefs have very little coercive authority and depend on community consensus for implementing recommendations; often a number of recognized chiefs form a tribal chiefs' council. Among more advanced preliterate societies, there may be a single paramount tribal chief with coercive authority.