• chattel •
Pronunciation: chæt-êl • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: No, this word does not refer to anything having to do with chatting; it refers to any movable possession.
Notes: Chattel once a collective noun, always plural but without a plural form: "chattel are" like "cattle are". Today, however, it is generally singular and pluralized the standard way, by adding the suffix -s. The phrase "human chattel" referred to slaves. The abstract nouns for this word, chattelhood and chattelism "slavery", refer only to human chattels.
In Play: Here is a good way to express your dislike of the way you are treated at work: "We're treated like chattels here, as though we were just pieces of furniture." Kids, here is how to get your mom's attention and send her scurrying to the dictionary: "Mom! Why can't I have a tattoo? You treat me like a chattel."
Word History: Chattel is related to cattle; that's easy to see. But where did both these words come from. Did you know that they come from capital? Here's how. Capital ultimately comes from Latin caput "head". As we do, the Romans referred to "head of cattle", counting cows by their heads. Latin capitalis "chief, foremost, of the head" is the word English borrowed for its word capital. The English adjective in such phrases as capital assets came to be used as a noun around the 16th century. Now, CA often became CHA in French. Examples of this change include castellus, which became château, camera "room" became French chambre, and chattel. Capitalis became captal in Provençal and, when French finally accepted the word, it changed the P to T. When we borrowed this word from French, it became cattle and, when the initial C became CH—voilà!—chattel, which English also borrowed. (We graciously thank Gene DuBose for recommending today's fascinating Good Word.)