What does “in camera” Mean?

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has asked for a comment on

the difference between “camera” and ”in camera.”

The word we use for a “picture-taking device” comes from Latin
camera, “an arched or vaulted roof or room.” The English word chamber, “room,” comes from the same Latin word.

Camera in its architectural sense exists in English as a place name: that of the Radcliffe Library at the University of Oxford.

The Radcliffe Camera (photo by Tom Murphy VII)

The Radcliffe Camera (photo by Tom Murphy VII)

The evolution of the word for a room to mean a picture-taking device comes from the Latin term camera obscura:

camera obscura [L.; lit. ‘dark chamber’].   a. Optics. An instrument consisting of a darkened chamber or box, into which light is admitted through a double convex lens, forming an image of external objects on a surface of paper, glass, etc., placed at the focus of the lens. –OED

The expression in camera, literally “in the room,” is used in the sense of “privately” or “secretly.” When the judge calls opposing attorneys to meet with him “in chambers,” they are meeting in camera.

In looking for examples on the web, I found that some writers hyphenate the two words.

When a board meeting goes in-camera, should the minutes of the in-camera portion be separated as distinct and separate minutes or simply show… that the board moved into in-camera and then just indicate any resolutions that arose?

The Board may meet in camera if the subject matter deals with…

Civic in-camera meetings misused

The second part of our meeting is going to be in camera while we discuss our report on our refugee determination system and illegal migrants.

The only exceptions are matters dealt with at in camera presentations and de facto decision-making preceding formal decision-making.

Iqaluit council bars Little from in-camera meetings

So far, both the OED and Merriam-Webster agree that the expression is written as two words: in camera.

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7 Responses to “What does “in camera” Mean?”

  • Tony Hearn

    And the authorities are surely right, if anything is ‘right’ in English. Hyphenation is a difficult area to get one’s head round. Fowler in his ‘A Dictionary of Modern Idiom’ writes, at the head of a very long and highly informative entry:’The chaos prevailing among writers or printers or both regarding the use of hyphens is discreditable to English Education’ (and no doubt American too!), so the problem is not new.

    In the present context we have a transient group of loose compounds, nouns (e.g. ‘man-child’) and adjectives (e.g. ‘oft-repeated’). Some, like ‘ice cream/ice-cream/icecream’ for example are in transit, though other words put down roots and become long-term residents, e.g. it was all hocus-pocus’.

    Then we have hyphenation of pre-positional adjective phrases. So we write: ‘It is black and white’, but ‘It is a black-and-white film’. Latin phrases, though, are resistant to this native idiom. ‘Her decree nisi papers have arrived’, ‘The de jure government’. By the same token we do not (or at least should not) hyphenate ‘in camera’, wherever it occurs, as Mirriam-Webster recognizes. But for the complete picture Fowler has to be read, both for his unfailing logic, and for examples of words that have moved from loose to close compounds over the years.

  • Peter

    So far, both the OED and Merriam-Webster agree that the expression is written as two words: in camera.

    I hope so (though three of your “hyphenated” examples weren’t hyphenated!)…the hyphen changes the meaning; STM it makes sense to talk about in-camera optics, etc. (i.e., located inside a picture-taking device)

  • mailav

    good information, thanks

  • Melissa Sugar

    In the legal arena the term “In Camera” is short for an “In Camera inspection” meaning the judge takes a PRIVATE look at the evidence or deposition or document or photos or whatever the subject of the “in camera inspection” is. This usually occurs when both sides (prosecution and defense attorney) in a criminal case or the Plaintiff’s attorney and the respondent’s attorney in a civil case-disagree about whether a certain, usually crucial piece of evidence should come in, meainging (1) is it admissable-is it relevant to the trier of fact in making a determination of the ultimate issue of the case AND (2) is the prejudial affect to the defendant sunstanially outweighed by the probative value of the evidence. The best way for me to describe is by example:

    A few years back I was the prosecutor in a capital murder case. Whenever the death penalty is an aption ; the trial judge bends very far on the defense side to avoid reversable error. I had several F.B.I. agents from another state testifying as the cross country chase, shooting, bank robbery etc. For some reason (probably from something the agent tesiified to a one of many pre-trial hearings) the defense attorney felt that he had reason to doubt the credibilty of the agents, but he did not have anything concrete and you are not permitted ot just ask random questions on a “fishing expediton” in an effort to catch the witness testifying inconsistently to a prior statement etc. So without anything concrete you are basically stuck. Police, local and feds are not required to turn over what they call their “field notes” to the defense, whereby when the officer makes his official report the state is required to turn it over to the defense through the disovery process.

    My agent was on the stnad and defense counsel had reason to believe that he was testifying inconsistent with his own first personal observation- not, he was not testyfing differently than he had at pre-trial hearings. The defense attorney asked him he had his field notes with him (most agents do not even bring them to court for this very reason) they are the scribbled notepad notes taken at the scene that the agent uses in combination with other things (talking the case over with other agents who were present etc.
    I dont know about you, but when I scibble inital notes down they are not always accurate- i am in a hurry and i if i make a mistake I know that i will correct it before my final product is submitted, however it can work the other way if you have a dishonest agent who screwed up when giving miranda warnings or any mumber of ways ( I am not saying these bad agents are real and exist, but you know the cliche- there are bad apples in every tree-

    anyway, defense asked my agent if he had his field notes with him and he did, he then asked to see then , his argument to the judge was that if the agent tesified different than his field notes, then defense attorney had no way of impeaching him if he could not view the notes; I objected arguing that the defense had failed to show any reason for doubting the agent and he had done nothing improper to warrant this intrusion. This places the defense in a predicament because if the agent is untruthful and he cant see the notes, he will never know. So the judge agreed with me and ruled that he could not see the notes so to preserve the issue on appeal defense attorney asked the judge to conduct ” an in camera inspection of the field notes to detemrine if there was anyting the defense would be entitiled to use during cross for impeachment. SO the judge holds the notes while agent testifies, but does not make defense privy to the content

    In my case,at the conclusion of the agents testimony, the judge made his ruling without ever referencing any content of the notes (because some stuff the defense would love to have, but just not entitled to) judge ruled that the officer had not testified inconsistent and therefore the defense was probited for having the notes

  • hilary reeves

    how does someone in the public eye, have precedence over the right to a trial in camera – with no evidence? The person is found guilty, with no representation to the court, when previous “evidence” was screwed up by media reporting, before the defendent was given access to prosecution evidence? And never followed up by defendents barrister.

  • J Barry Fraser

    I always thought that “in camera”of say a board of directors simply met that only board members could attend. Minutes of the in camera session would be kept and reflect any motions that were dealt with by the board, is this correct?

  • Jay Randall

    Yes, Barry, that is correct in terms of board meetings.

    On a different note, why does a writing tips site capitalize the word “mean” in the header, “What does “in camera” Mean?”

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