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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Anglo-Saxon, all confusing.

Incorporeal, the crowd-sourced Wikipedia informs us, “means without a physical body, presence or form. It is often used in reference to souls, spirits, … God or the Divine.”1

ghost.jbruceUm… that’s not exactly how the word might be used in the documents The Legal Genealogist is likely to be including in a family history.

Well, all right, so I might have to make an exception for my Robertson kin, since there is a definite degree of witchiness in that line … and, okay, we have the same haunted-house stories that most families have … and …

But we’re not going there right now.

No, we’ll stick for today to the law-dictionary version of the word. Just what is meant when a court case or legal opinion that mentions our ancestors talks about something that’s incorporeal?

The term, even in the law, does mean “without body; not of material nature; the opposite of ‘corporeal.’”2 And corporeal, then, means “such things as have an objective, material existence; perceptible by the senses of sight and touch; possessing a real body. Opposed to incorporeal and spiritual.”3

Black’s Law Dictionary then offers this somewhat more useful definition in the context of property:

CORPOREAL PROPERTY: Such as affects the senses, and may be seen and handled by the body, as opposed to incorporeal property, which cannot be seen or handled, and exists only in contemplation. Thus a house is corporeal, but the annual rent payable for its occcupation is incorporeal. Corporeal property is, if movable, capable of manual transfer; if immovable, possession of it may be delivered up. But incorporeal property cannot be so transferred, but some other means must be adopted for its transfer, of which the most usual is an instrument in writing.4

Some examples:

• A copyright is an incorporeal chattel: it’s a right that you can’t hold in your hand, but which you nevertheless own as the author or creator of an original work.5

• A patent is also an incorporeal chattel: it’s not the item itself, but the right to be the only person using what you’ve invented that’s meant.6

• The right of local residents to pasture their sheep on a town common is an incorporeal hereditament: a property right that a resident might own or inherit, but that isn’t tangible.7

• A dignity — the right your English ancestors may have had to “an honor, a title, station or distinction of honor” is an incorporeal hereditament.8

• A chose in action — the right to bring a legal action, usually for damages or for possession of an item — is an incorporeal property right in the English common law, and the equivalent term in the civil law is incorporeal property.9

All of this may be ghastly when we’re struggling with the language of the law.

But at least it’s not ghostly…


Image: user jbruce,

  1. Wikipedia (, “Incorporeality,” rev. 13 Jan 2014.
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 612, “incorporeal.”
  3. Ibid., 279, “corporeal.”
  4. Ibid., 279-280, “corporeal property.”
  5. See ibid., 612, “incorporeal chattel.”
  6. See ibid.
  7. Ibid., 230, “common.” See also ibid., 612, “incorporeal hereditament.”
  8. Ibid., 367, dignity. See also ibid., 612, “incorporeal hereditament.” You’ll notice I said your English ancestors. Mine would have been the peasants on the estate of the person with the dignity.
  9. Ibid., 202, “chose in action.” Also, 612, “incorporeal property.”
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