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Postby Dr. Goodword » Sat Sep 29, 2012 11:48 pm

• mortmain •

Pronunciation: mort-maynHear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: 1. Perpetual inalienable ownership of real estate, that is, without rights to sell, give, or otherwise transfer it. 2. The stultifying effect of the past on the present (US usage).

Notes: Today's word is another legalistic term that is slipping out of the law offices. There is little to say about it: it behaves itself, is pronounced pretty much the way it looks, and has few if any derivatives. You may use it as a verb, to mortmain land, which opens the door for a mortmainer. But even this derivative is stretching the word's limits.

In Play: Historically, today's Good Word has been used in connection with land owned by churches, but other institutions also own land in mortmain: "Ty Coone only contributes money to universities for the purchase of real estate to be placed in mortmain." The second meaning of today's word is found only in US dictionaries, though we have included it since it is more widely applicable: "When Spielman assumed the presidency, his first task was to lift the pall of mortmain hanging over the company and introduce a desire for innovation."

Word History: Today's word comes from a Latin phrase meaning "dead hand" from mortuus "dead" + manus "hand". The Latin word manus has had its hand in the manufacture of many words borrowed by English. Manufacture itself, for instance, literally means "hand-making", from the days when all products were made that way. Manuscripts once were written by hand (can you imagine?) and so the word comes from the phrase manu "by hand" + scriptus "written". Finally, manure comes from the same lovely French word that gave us maneuver, to wit, mainouverer a derivative of Latin manuoperare "to work with the hands". We certainly have better ways to maneuver manure these days! (Sara Goldman had a major hand in getting today's Good Word to you; she suggested it.)
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Postby MTC » Sun Sep 30, 2012 12:11 pm

What a memorable word picture: the "dead hand" of the past with land in its eternal grip! Law students will recall the Crown wrested control of land from the Church in the Statute of Mortmain. Mortmain still bedevils law students and bar examinees in The Rule Against Perpetuities, something most of them ( including me) would rather forget.

Generally speaking, the law favors the unfettered use of land, and disfavors restrictions.
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Postby LukeJavan8 » Sun Sep 30, 2012 12:24 pm

How does the right of "eminent domain" fit into this
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Postby Slava » Sun Sep 30, 2012 5:02 pm

LukeJavan8 wrote:How does the right of "eminent domain" fit into this concept??

I'm not sure it does. Eminent domain means the government can take your property away from you if it can show that the planned use overwhelms your rights to own it. Mortmain should make this impossible, if I understand it correctly.

I'm thinking that environmental easements are a form of mortmain, though. That's how many parks and reserves are formed these days.
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Postby Perry Lassiter » Sun Sep 30, 2012 6:14 pm

This is true in countries based on law, but there are two caveats. Most egregious are those countries where a dictator or government nationalizes everything. But second, it is true what people can do, they can undo. One reason states are in financial trouble is that their constitutional amendments have protected so many fifedoms they are left with only education and health that no one has thought to protect. The Condition can be changed by one amendment. Likewise the same law that sets up mortmain can be erased, granted with more difficulty than most.
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Postby bamaboy56 » Mon Oct 01, 2012 12:53 am

My late in-laws paid for and owned the house and the four acres it sat on for many years. It wasn't quite mortmain in the sense that they did have the right to sell it if they had wanted to. About three years ago the county people came through and placed a Right Of Way sign in their front yard, taking about 25 feet along the entire front of their property line for a future widening of the road in front of their house (eminent domain?). It's been several years now but they still haven't started the road widening project. Be okay with me if it never happens. I'm just glad neither of my in-laws are here to see it happen.
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Postby Philip Hudson » Mon Oct 01, 2012 1:12 am

Eminent domain has always been used in the United States to take land for public use and for the public good. This includes land for road building and flood control. Now eminent domain laws are used to create areas for gentrification (getting rid of average homes to make room for mansions) and for private commercial use. It is high time the laws of eminent domain be revised and restricted. And where eminent domain action is needed, the land owners should be adequately compensated.
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Postby MTC » Mon Oct 01, 2012 6:26 am

From "Haunted Houses" by Longfellow:

We have no title-deeds to house or lands;.
Owners and occupants of earlier dates.
From graves forgotten stretch their dusty hands,
And hold in mortmain still their old estates.

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