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Oct 2, 2009
This week's theme
Words derived from hands and feet

This week's words
prestidigitation
antipodal
legerdemain
expediency
mortmain

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Autumn colors
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A.Word.A.Day
with Anu Garg

mortmain

PRONUNCIATION:
(MOHRT-mayn)

MEANING:
noun:
1. The perpetual ownership of property by institutions such as churches.
2. The often stifling influence of the past on the present and the living.

ETYMOLOGY:
From Anglo-Norman mortmayn, feminine of morte (dead) + main (hand), from Latin mortua manus (dead hand). Ultimately from the Indo-European root man- (hand) that's also the source of manage, maintain, maneuver, manufacture, manuscript, and command.

NOTES:
Imagine a B-movie scene of a dead hand stretching out of a grave and you have the picture of the word mortmain. The idea behind mortmain is of a dead hand reaching beyond to hold a property in perpetuity. By extension, the word describes the past dictating the present in an oppressive manner.
Unlike the passing of an asset to a child on the death of a parent, institutions such as churches hold property forever. Over time, through donations, etc., they can acquire a large amount of real estate which cannot be distributed or revert to the crown. Also, in such cases there is a loss of revenue from inheritance tax. The English King Edward I passed the Statutes of Mortmain in 1279 and again in 1290 to limit such holding of property in perpetuity without royal authorization.

USAGE:
"On what grounds do we allow the dead to bind the living? Courts used to adhere to a 'rule against perpetuities' and were suspicious of mortmain, of the 'dead hand' of documents drawn up long ago."
Christopher Caldwell; Philanthropy Goes to the Dogs; Financial Times (London, UK); Jul 5, 2008.

"Martins felt that somehow this knowledge would pay the mortmain that memory levies on human beings."
Graham Greene; The Third Man; 1949.

See more usage examples of mortmain in Vocabulary.com's dictionary.

A THOUGHT FOR TODAY:
It is hard enough to remember my opinions, without also remembering my reasons for them. -Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, philosopher (1844-1900)

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