• mortmain •
mort-mayn • Hear 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, manœuvrer, 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.)