Daily Archives: December 3, 2008

demesne

With the three wheels of e‘s, the linking letters between them and the d sticking a stack up in front, this word looks almost something like a steam train. But unless you happen to possess a steam train, it doesn’t have much to do with one. The de could seem French or lower-class urban; dem could give a whiff of politics; esne, to the historically literate, reminds one of when humans could be chattel. And what would those esnes be working on? Why, their Lord’s demesne. Not to demean it, but dat’s de main ting. On hearing this word spoken, you may mistake it for for demean, in which case you may feel demeaned by the speaker – perhaps justly so, given that the speaker is likely a lawyer – or you may mistake it for domain, and there won’t really be many, if any, contextual clues to tell you otherwise. Demesne, after all, is historically just an alternate spelling of domain – both came into English by way of French, and this version took on an unetymological s to indicate a long vowel and perhaps to indicate a link with mesne lord and mesnie (household establishment). Sound a bit fancy? Well, this is legal language. It was the law clerks who kept this version in ink since medieval times, and its uses are pretty much all legal. And what is it, then, legally? Nine points of the law (to be less cute, possession). It tends to show up in court with other members of the bar: hold in demesne, in his demesne as of fee, in ancient demesne (does that sound like something from the Anglican hymnal?), demesne of the Crown, Royal demesne, or, referring to estate possessed, demesne lands. And if somone attacks you, you fight back, and he complains, your lawyer will insist it was son assault demesne. And, after reading all those, do you still want to pronounce the s? I can’t blame you if you do, but you can’t take it away, say it aloud, or otherwise demean it; it’s not your demesne.