Own and owe

The word ‘to own’ is bound up in origins with the word ‘to owe’.

You wouldn’t think so in today’s world of widening inequalities, but in his classic work on stewardship, the 1987 book, the Just Enterprise, George Goyder writes that:

” It is worth pausing to consider for a moment the underlying meaning of the word ‘own’. If I own a house, that means I have a right to live in it or dispose of it. But the word used for possession from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century was not ‘own’ but ‘owe’. Before me as I write lies a manuscript copy of John Wycliffe’s New Testament. At the side of he page is written ‘John Shaw oweth this book.’ (Sir John Shaw was Lord Mayor of London in 1501). Many similar illustrations could be given of the fact that ownership was originally ‘owership’. The obligations of a company, what it ‘owes’, as distinct from what it owns, embraces its duties not only to its shareholders, but also to its employees, consumers and the community of which the company forms a part.”

Many thanks to Pat (Conaty) for pointing me to this.

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One thought on “Own and owe

  1. Interesting how the meanings of ownership and debt shift! The idea of ownership conferring absolute title and the power to dispose is quite novel. Another idea of ownership is more like custodianship – or perhaps the incurring of a debt nobody would expect to be literally repaid. My farming relatives in Wales definitely think of their ‘ownership’ of land in this way.

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