“I set out on this ground, which I suppose to be self-evident, that the earth belongs in usufruct to the living; that the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”
– Letter from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, from Paris, 6 September 1789.
I came across this unusual word – usufruct – a couple of weeks ago. It’s such an oddball that I decided to use it as a Friday word. It’s also loosely Thanksgiving related, because of its association with Native American treaty rights.
It means the use, possession, or profitable enjoyment of something that belongs to another. (The legal definition is somewhat more strict, but I’ll leave that to the lawyers.)
It’s usually (but not exclusively) applied to land, with the sense that a person (or group, or community) has the usufruct of the land, although they don’t actually own it. It’s sometimes temporary, and often granted by tradition to a group or community. I’d say it’s the cousin of an easement, on steroids.
Usufruct strikes me as an especially strange combination of sounds, the soft “use” sound of usu- up against that -fr-, ending with the hard -uct. Its Latin roots are unusually visible, with the English word merely a contracted form of “usus et fructus,” literally “the use and the fruits of.”
I ran into the word in an article on land use. There’s a case wending its way through the courts in Massachusetts involving usufruct (Greene v. Pacheco). It concerns the “aboriginal and usufruct rights” (through ancient treaty) of a member of the Wampanoag tribe and the attempted denial of same by a Plymouth County shellfish officer. From the summaries I’ve seen, I won’t be surprised if this works itself out as a glorified assault case. But the usufruct angle makes it more interesting and raises the stakes. The general idea of usufruct is worth understanding, regardless of the eventual outcome.
Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving day, enjoying the usus and savoring the fructus of the season!