Saturday, September 7, 2013

Some Radiations of Alienation

It occurred to me, the other day, that “alienation” may be viewed as a two-sided coin. A spatial element was present in this thought, as follows. For the moment I saw the word defined as “a turning away from something.” But if it is a turning away, the person engaging in this act is also causing him- or herself to turn toward something else. And if the stress is then laid on the new view, the person is no longer alienated. Suppose, however, that this movement from something to something else is arrested at mid-point. Then we get social alienation—estrangement without a new attachment, feeling strange in a strange land. Not good.

Interesting word—and one firmly anchored, originally, in the ownership of property or, rather, the giving it up. Both “land” as property and “strange” as in “not mine” play a role in its etymology. Webster’s first definition of the word is “conveyance of property to another,” therefore, simply, “a sale.” The root here is the Latin alienare, to make something another’s. Behind that lurks the Latin alius, meaning “other,” thus literally translated the sale is a kind of “othering.” Strikes me that the negative connotations of that sale have lingered on in the linguistics of it—as in “I want to keep the money and the land as well. Too bad that I cannot.”

The human tendency of ferociously keeping a grip on something even after we’ve alienated it for a payment applies as much to intangible properties as to tangible real estate. Two examples of such ownership are affections and sanity. Alienation of affections means transferring them from one to another object; the loss, however, is not that of the person who moves his affections to another—but the person from whom he takes them. The phrase is alive and well in law. As for sanity—it may be lost or severely disturbed. The alienist, in that case, is the person to consult for a cure. The word is still alive in the dictionaries, but I’ve never heard anyone saying that he or she was seeing an alienist.

It may be that—although my trusted source on etymology, Online Etymology Dictionary, does not confirm this—the real root, perhaps further back than we can see, derives the word from the Latin ligamen, meaning a “bond, link, or tie.” That’s where the word lien, comes from by way of Old French. It means “the right to hold the property of another until the debt is paid.” Here lien is a link and, presumably, alien is a non-link. That might be so much simpler. But where property rights are involved, it’s a jungle out there—and such research uncovers the weirdest words ever.

Today’s excursion landed me on a Wikipedia site entitled Subinfeudation. Now in mediaeval times all land was viewed as owned by the king, but for purposes of administration pieces were granted by sovereign to lords, lords to others, and so on. Certain obligations went with these lands. In efforts to escape these, the titular owners sold parts of it to others by alienation; this practice was known as subinfeudation. The granting lord therefore lost services; not surprisingly, this had to be and was fixed by legislation in 1290 in England, forcing subinfeudators to require buyers of land to render, toward the granting lord, the same services as the original grantee.

Never fear. Financial scandals and real estate meltdowns had their horrid place even when Christendom was still in flower. We’ve sprouted derivatives, synthetic CDOs, and hedge funds. The Mediaevals worried about subinfeudation, wardships, substitution, escheats, serjeanty, socage, and such. Enough, in those days, to make you feel downright alienated.

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