Monday, February 02, 2015


Goods and Chattels

Homer, Odyssey 2.74-75 (tr. A.T. Murray, rev. George E. Dimock):
For me it would be better that you yourselves should eat up my treasures and my flocks.

                                       ἐμοὶ δέ κε κέρδιον εἴη
ὑμέας ἐσθέμεναι κειμήλιά τε πρόβασίν τε.
Calvert Watkins (1933-2013), How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 9-10:
The comparison of characteristic formulas in various Indo-European languages and societies permits their reconstruction, sometimes as far back as the original common language and society. The formulas tend to make reference to culturally significant features—'something that matters'—and it is this which accounts for their repetition and long-term preservation. The phrase goods and chattels is an example of a formula in English today, fixed in the order of its constituents and pragmatically restricted in deployment and distribution. A glance at The New English Dictionary shows the phrase attested in that form and in that fixed order since the early 16th century and a good century earlier in the form good(e)s and cattel(s). The earliest citation is 1418, but we may safely presume the phrase is much older. It appears to be a translation into English of an Anglo-Latin legal phrase (NED s.v. cattle) designating non-moveable and moveable wealth which is attested as bonorum aliorum sive cattalorum in the pre-Norman, 11th-century Laws of Edward the Confessor. The coinage cattala is from Late Latin cap(i)tale, presumably transmitted through Northern or Norman French, but before the Conquest.

This formula is a MERISM, a two-part figure which makes reference to the totality of a single higher concept, as will be shown in chap. 3: goods and chattels, nonmoveable and moveable wealth, together designate all wealth. In its present form this formula is nearly a thousand years old in English. Yet its history may be projected even further back, with the aid of the comparative method. We find a semantically identical formula in Homeric Greek nearly two thousand years earlier: the phrase κειμήλιά τε πρόβασίν τε (Od. 2.75), where Telemachus complains of the suitors devouring his 'riches which lie and riches which move', the totality of his wealth.
κειμήλιον comes from κεῖμαι (lie still), πρόβασις from προβαίνω (move forward, advance).

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