I’ve just come across a very interesting edge case in the perennial issue “What is an English word?” I almost hate to post about it, because by doing so I’m ruining the pristine Google results, which at present consist of three hits: Politics in the Rural Society, by P. M. Jones (“Pockets of preciputary practice existed in the North, notably in Picardy and Flanders”); A History of the Family, Vol. 2: The Impact of Modernity, ed. Andre Burguiere, Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Martine Segalen, and Francois Zonabend (“It is also clear that the preciputary system which dominated in southern France was related to the stem family”); and “From mother to daughter: The transmission of fertility” by Agnès Fine, Véronique Moulinié, and Jean-Claude Sangoï (“However, in the Haut-Comminges, when inheritance is preciputary, it lends no systematic advantage to the eldest son”). From those quotes it sounds like an ordinary word, perhaps a little specialized (I’m pretty sure no one reading this will know what it means) but a member in good standing of the English word-hoard. And yet it is not in any English dictionary, not even in the remote reaches of the OED (an advanced search turns up no results), and three Google hits is essentially zero as far as frequency of use is concerned.

What does it mean, you ask? Well, it’s an anglicized form of French préciputaire (an adjective based on the noun préciput, from Latin praecipuum), so let’s turn to The Council of Europe French-English Legal Dictionary; on p. 89 we find “donation préciputaire – money, chattels or land which the surviving spouse is entitled to take from the community property before partition,” and on p. 226part préciputaire – gift to an heir out of an estate in addition to his share.” Apparently there is no other single-word English equivalent, using the French adjective would be awkward, and using a long periphrasis every time you want to deal with the concept would be even more so. So even though by all normal measures there is no English word “preciputary,” I am leaving it in the text I’m editing, and encouraging others to use it so its foothold will be less precarious (or précaire, as they say in France).


  1. Serendipity! A few hours back, I barged into a discussion at work of whether a certain word was “actually Russian” (alas, I didn’t catch the word itself) with the question of whether abarstic was actually English. It’s in the OED, defined as ‘insatiable’, but it has no known etymology, and all four examples are drawn from other dictionaries.

    I myself used it to answer a silly Quora question, and while other people replied with old tired shibboleths like hopefully, whatever, like, always/never, because, definitely ad nauseam, I came out for the permanent abolition of abarstic.

    See also éburation.

  2. Thanks for this post. I redid your google and came across one of those blogs who list your post titles in their blogroll. That led me to a wonderful post on the awkwardness of having the Annunciation and the Passion falling on the same day this year.

  3. And thanks for sharing that, it’s very interesting! (Note to Cowan: Tolkien is quoted.)

  4. Searching Google Books English for “préciputaire” finds a couple of ad-hoc translations

    * in French, also known as héritage préciputaire; for want of a more adequate term, I shall write of ‘preferential transmission’
    * preference legacy law (droit préciputaire)

    Starting on the French Wikipedia’s Préciput article and repeatedly clicking the other-language links leads not to a closed set of translations but to a spreading net of hypernyms and hyponyms.

  5. Am I the only one who keeps being reminded of “prepuce”? Oh well.

  6. January First-of-May says

    Starting on the French Wikipedia’s Préciput article and repeatedly clicking the other-language links leads not to a closed set of translations but to a spreading net of hypernyms and hyponyms.

    Culminating in this Polish disambiguation page, which is reached through Polish-[several possible links, e.g. German]-Russian-Ukrainian-French-Polish.
    I haven’t checked, but I think that’s the longest nontrivial route.

    German-English leads to “ultimogeniture” for some weird reason. No further spread from there, however.

    (It’s weird that things like this still happen, though… isn’t the prevention of that sort of stuff exactly what Wikidata is for?)

  7. No, Rodger, you are not.

  8. January First-of-May says

    I keep getting reminded of “precipice”, personally.

  9. Trond Engen says

    I’ve been trying to get my head around this, but there are either too few or too many details to say if ‘preciputary’ is best restricted to a very narrow set of French local pecularities, or if it could be applied broadly to traditional arrangements made to keep a family farm in one piece for the next generation.

  10. Yes, I wondered about that as well, but I suspect the former is the case.

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