Tag Archives: usucapion


I have quite a few cameras. I’ve acquired them variously. A few I bought new; rather more I bought used; a couple I was given; and at least two I gained through usucapion.

Does that word even look right, usucapion? It seems like a partial double-exposure of a word, caused by the film advance malfunctioning. There’s usu, as in usual and usufruct and usurpation; there’s cap, as in escape and cap and caption; and there’s ion, as in – hey, should this be usucaption? That would already look better.

There is a word usucaption. And it means exactly what usucapion means. But neither is an error for the other; they just both made it into English via slightly different paths from the same origin, Latin usucapio, from usus ‘use’ and capio ‘I take, I hold, I possess’ – yes, the origin of English capture, as in capture an image in a photograph, as well as catch and chase.

Usucapion is when you come to have ownership of something by just… having it and using it. It’s like commonlaw marriage, but for property and stuff. (As is often said, possession is nine points in the law.) It originates in Roman law, which had very complex means of formally transferring ownership of property – too complex for many circumstances, so often ownership was taken to be properly transferred through usucapion if five criteria were satisfied: (1) you have uninterrupted possession for a specific length of time (one year for stuff, two for turf); (2) the thing can be owned (so not a public common area or a free person); (3) the person you got it from had the right to have it; (4) you have a proper cause for acquiring it (e.g., you paid for it); (5) it can’t have been stolen or taken by force at any time.

So, for instance, my Yashica Mat-124G (pictured with a strap that was given to me by my wife’s uncle) (1) has been in my possession for, um, well, more than 30 years. That seems plenty long enough. And (2) it’s plainly capable of being owned. And (3) the person who had it before had the right to have it – he bought it, back in the 1970s, from a legitimate store. And (4 and 5) I have a proper cause for acquiring it: the former owner is my dad, and I just… you know, came to have it, as one sometimes does. My dad never objected to my diverting it to my own use (pretty sure I asked him, but you know, that was so long ago), and he hasn’t taken film photographs in many years now, whereas I still do. And the cherry on it all is that I recently took it in and paid for a proper maintenance on it (cleaning, lubrication, adjustment), so it works nicely. Also I added that strap.

So, yes, usucapion. There is no usurpation in my usufruct. It’s the same way as English has gotten so many of its words – including usucapion (and usucaption). Consider: (1) it’s been in our language since the 1600s – generally the length of time a word from another language needs to be in English before we stop italicizing it like a strange word is a matter of decades at most; (2) lexical items used in a language are part of that language’s lexicon, tautologically – if you can use the words in ordinary sentences in ordinary ways, they are words of that language; (3) questions of ownership rights don’t come into individual words (outside of trademarks and similar proper nouns, and occasionally invented words associated with a specific author), since they are infinitely reproducible, infinitely fungible tokens – you don’t have to remove a word from one place to use it in another, and besides, nearly all words come into any language by taking them from another language or inheriting them from a language that is an ancestor to that language; and (4 and 5) while some words have been brought into English through abusive means such as colonization and have been used or altered in such a way as to have a negative effect on the speakers of the original language, rendering our cause for acquiring and using them questionable, that is plainly not the case with a word we got from legal Latin. 

What’s more, we’ve already long since altered the pronunciation (and spelling) to suit ourselves. Usucaption with the t is said as you probably expect, like either “use a caption” or “use ya caption”; on the other hand, in usucapion, it’s like “use ya cape, Ian.” Nothing like the Latin. So usucapion is our word now, and so is usucaption.