The phrase in charge of is a wonderful thing. Sometimes we speed right past it without pausing to consider the depth of what it communicates about authority. Merriam-Webster tells me that in charge of is an idiom, it is an expression peculiar to English speaking people. The form of the phrase suggests all kind of true and wonderful things. The peculiarities of this particular phrase point us towards a richer understanding of authority and responsibility.
The English noun charge comes from Anglo-French charger. The first definition listed in the dictionary, is an obsolete one meaning a load or weight. In English we can speaking of charging a weapon, which means to load it. Discharging a firearm means to fire it, which expends and expels the ammunition that was previously loaded. To be charged means to be loaded or burdened. Although we may tend to think of being in charge as holding power or having control, it is first an obligation, a duty.
Every instance of human authority is as much responsibility as it is power. Spider-man’s writers were right: with great power comes great responsibility. The grammar and etymology of in charge begs us to consider that authority is a weighty thing.
To describe someone as being in charge always suggests (although we may not notice!) that there is a higher authority to which the one in charge answers. You might use the phrase in charge without intending any reference to a higher power, but you really shouldn’t. You would do better to choose another phrase, if that is your intent. If you say “I’m in charge here,” we might ask who put you in charge. There must be someone who charged you with this authority. How did you come to bear this responsibility?
The word charge can be use to refer directly to those things entrusted to the care of another. Minor children are sometimes referred to as charges.
At long last, each of our charges was tucked in bed.
—Ann M. Martin, Baby-sitters’ Winter Vacation
Whenever charge is used of a child (or some other dependent) it always suggests that the person has been committed to the oversight of another. This immediately communicates several things.
First, it tells us that the child is valuable, he is to receive care and attention.
Second, it tells that there is a right way and a wrong way for the charge to be treated. It suggests some fragility or vulnerability. Secret Service agents are only placed in charge of the president’s safety because he is mortal. If he were invulnerable, there would be no need, and thus no Secret Service.
Third, it tells us that this is a delegated responsibility. The person in charge received this duty from someone else.
Fourth, it tells us that the person in charge is answerable to that higher authority.
Fifth, it tells us that the person in charge is responsible for the proper disposition (or treatment) of that which has been committed to him.
So then when one person is in charge of another, we understand immediately that this is a delegated authority, with a matching responsibility for the proper treatment of the charge. This authority is delegated because the higher power recognizes, and is giving attention to, both the value and the vulnerability of the one who is committed to the care of another. A mature understanding of what it means to be in charge takes all this in at a glance.
The same ideas are involved when someone is placed charge of something rather than someone, although the proper treatment of things is very different from the proper treatment of persons.
At the risk of boring you with repetition I will say, that it really is wonderful what this English idiom hints at, and suggests to us, by the way it is constructed. It’s almost as if generations of English speakers are teaching us something about authority just by the language they left to their heirs.