09 May 2008

Every New Word a Neologism

I have been traveling so much recently (Florida, Vienna, now California) that I have not had time to post! But here is a curiosity for today.

Samuel Johnson once said that a book you haven't yet read is for you the same as if it has been recently published. (The Odyssey fresh every generation.) Can we say similarly that a word that you didn't know is as if it had recently been coined?

I encountered a word today which I know I had never seen before, and yet which for all I know may not be uncommon. It's not surprising that there should be words like that, but I don't know if this is such a word. So I ask you, have you seen this word before in English?

The word is: hypothecate.

It's used in two senses in English (see the OED entry below). Its more common sense is 'to support a loan with a pledge of property', e.g. you borrow money, and you pledge collateral for the loan; the creditor has the right to take possession of the property and liquidate it if you default on the loan, but you remain the owner of the property in the meantime. The loan is secured not by you, but by the property: that is, if the liquidation of the property ends up not being sufficient to repay the principal of the loan, you are off the hook for the rest (A pawnshop works in that way: the pawnbroker lends money for a fraction of the value of the pawned property and cannot take possession of it until some period for repayment has elapsed.)

In the less common sense, to hypothecate is to hypothesize (see Ezra Pound's pedantry, below).

Wikipedia says that maybe the noun, 'hypothecation', is used now in a third sense, as an abbreviation of 'hypothetical dedication' (yikes!), as in the earmarking of tax receipts for some particular purpose, to wit: "The new gasoline tax is a hypothecation for the funding of public transportation."

So, be honest with me: Did you know this as an English word already? (Yes, I am aware that anyone who knows the word will think it obvious that everyone does, and so a confession of ignorance is hazardous. But by the same token a confession of ignorance may be refreshing.)

(I suspect it's not common in English, even as a legal term of art, because the US 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1993 decided a case which hinged on the meaning of the word as used in a corporate charter.)

1. trans. To give or pledge as security; to pledge, pawn, mortgage.
1681 STAIR Instit. IV. xxv. §5 (1693) 619 The Fruits of the Ground..which by the Law were Hypothecat for the Rents of the said year. 1754 ERSKINE Princ. Sc. Law (1809) 197 The whole cattle on the ground..are hypothecated for a year's rent, one after another successively. 1755 N. MAGENS Insurances II. 55 We oblige ourselves and hypothecate, for the Security and Payment of the Sum of this Writing, the said Ship..and we oblige ourselves not to dispose thereof in any manner, until the said Sum be entirely paid. And whatever is done to the contrary, let it be null, as a Thing done against an express Prohibition and Hypothecation. 1756 ROLT Dict. Trade, Hypotheca, among the moderns to hypothecate a ship, is to pawn or pledge the same for necessaries; and into whose hands soever the ship comes, it is liable. 1797 BURKE Regic. Peace III. Wks. VIII. 319 Whether they to whom this new pledge is hypothecated, have redeemed their own. 1827 SCOTT Napoleon (1834) I. vi. 206 The assembly adopted a system of paper money, called assignats, which were secured or hypothecated upon the church lands. 1855 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. xii. III. 148 He had no power to hypothecate any part of the public revenue.

2. trans. = HYPOTHESIZE v. 2.

1906 Nature 7 June 136/1 Mr. Cowell hypothecated a resisting medium through which the earth travels. 1912 R. FRY in Gt. State ix. 271 Mr. Wells's Modern Utopia..hypothecates a vast superstructure of private trading. 1915 E. B. HOLT Freudian Wish i. 4 One will best..not hypothecate to this end any such thing as ‘psychic energy’. 1920 E. POUND Let. 12 Sept. (1971) 161 You are talking through your hat when you suggest that I..was ever ass enough to have picked ‘La Figlia’ for the fantastic occasion you hypothecate. 1952 Pediatrics IX. 724 One had to hypothecate the existence of a mutation of organisms.

Hence hy{sm}pothecated ppl. a.; also hy{sm}pothecator, one who hypothecates or pledges something as security.

1779 SIR W. JONES Comm. Is├Žus Wks. 1799 IV. 205 The property..was distinguished like all other hypothecated estates, by small columns, and inscriptions..containing a specification of the sum for which they were pledged. 1828 WEBSTER cites Judge Johnson for Hypothecator. 1865 Day of Rest Oct. 574 The iron box in the back sitting room, containing the hypothecated jewels, had been rifled.


David Ekstrand said...

I haven't seen it in English before. But as a noun, it's used in the first OED meaning of the term in some other languages, such as Swedish ("hypotek"), which is where I've seen it before. So even though I hadn't seen it, I still guessed its meaning.

Michael Pakaluk said...

Hi David, Similarly one might guess from Greek and Latin also; but then the felt strangeness of the word in English--as if it should be familiar but isn't--may make one hesitate. Best, M

dawn said...

Interesting find, Michael! I'm not sure if I've encountered it before. The word doesn't strike my ear as completely unfamiliar, and the second definition is exactly what I expected, but both of these features could be explained by the word's similarity to 'hypothesize'. However, I have not, I'm certain, ever heard it used in the first sense. That could be in part because I don't own anything that could be hypothecated for more than a $100 loan.

Anonymous said...

While I'm as skeptical as anyone of the utility of taking perfectly good words and burdening the public with novel and unrelated definitions for them, I don't think the 5th Circuit case turning on the meaning of the word 'hypothecate' tells us much. There's a first-year contracts case (at least, it's so used in many schools) in which the controversy is over the meaning of the word 'chicken'. Yes, chicken.

I've actually (while waiting for my turn on the docket) heard people arguing whether "title or interest" had been conveyed when a property had obviously been used as collateral, and it was obvious that a security interest had been conveyed, and the only legal authority cited supported the proposition that the interest that was conveyed wasn't title, not that it wasn't an interest. Some parties will have their lawyers fight crazy battles for reasons that have little to do with their likelihood of victory on the merits. I just try to avoid those clients ;-)

Anonymous said...

The Chicken Case

The cite on the case is Frigaliment Importing Co., Ltd. v. BNS International Sales Corp., 190 F. Supp. 116 (S.D.N.Y. 1960).

They really were litigating whether the delivered products (admittedly chickens) were 'chickens' within the meaning of the contract.