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The language of the law. Part Latin, part Greek, part law French, even part Anglo-Saxon. And all confusing.

“You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

It’s a wonderful sentence, one that made The Legal Genealogist giggle in the movie theater and that continues to do so even today.

You remember it, I’m sure, from the movie The Princess Bride, when one of the characters has said, for the eighty-‘leventh time, that something was inconceivable, and Mandy Patinkin — playing swordsman Inigo Montoya — responded. Because the event had happened, it couldn’t have been inconceivable.

So what’s the word at issue today?

The word estate, and reader Angela can tell her cousins and fellow researchers that: “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The issue came up in a series of court orders issued by the court in Isle of Wight County, Virginia, on 9 April 1694. The orders had the same basic language: “order for attachment upon return on non est inventus is granted … agst the estate of John Cogan…”1

Our intrepid reader said she was “trying to understand ‘non est inventus.’ My understanding is that it should mean the person is not in the jurisdiction. Others believe that this man was deceased as …the court orders have the word ‘estate’ in them.”

So what exactly does this mean — and specifically does it, as those cousins and fellow researchers insist, mean that John Cogan was dead by 9 April 1694?

Let’s break this down.

First, this is a debt situation, where the court is ordering an attachment — an order to seize property “principally used against absconding, concealed, or fraudulent debtors”.2

Which means that Angela is absolutely right about the term “non est inventus” — it simply means that that the debtor couldn’t be found. In Latin, it literally means “(he) is not found.” It’s the document a sheriff brings back to the court when he’s been ordered to bring a defendant in to answer a claim of debt but the debtor couldn’t be found in the jurisdiction.3

And that brings us to that term where we do not think it means what those other folks think it means.

The word “estate.”

definition of estate

Which does not mean that John Cogan was dead. At least, not necessarily.

Yes, it’s true that the word “estate” is used in probate cases to describe what the deceased person owned and now must be distributed to the heirs.4

But that’s not all the word means.

In fact, the word isn’t limited to what someone owns at the time of death at all. Instead, it’s the “interest which any one has in land, or in any other subject of property. … In a wider sense, the term ‘estate’ denotes a man’s whole financial status or condition,—the aggregate of his interests and concerns, so far as regards his situation with reference to wealth or its objects, including debts and obligations, as well as possessions and rights.”5 Effectively, each of us has an estate at every moment of our lives: exactly what we own, minus exactly what we owe.

In short, it’s a word without limits — living people have an estate, dead people leave an estate.

So… was John Cogan alive or dead when these orders were issued?

We can’t be 100% sure, because we don’t know why John Cogan couldn’t be found by the sheriff.

It could have been that he was hiding out, not wanting to be found. It could have been that he was traveling somewhere outside of the county boundaries. It could have been that he actually was dead, and nobody told the sheriff that when he came calling. Without more, we can come up with theories that range from more likely to less likely — but we can’t be sure.

So what we can’t say is exactly what those other researchers are saying — that just because the word estate was used, it definitely means Cogan was dead.

Because, of course, though they keep using that word, it does not mean what they think it means.

Cite/link to this post: Judy G. Russell, “A word without limits,” The Legal Genealogist ( : posted 13 Mar 2024).


  1. See Isle of Wight County, Virginia, Deed Book 1 (1688-1698), session of 9 April 1694; digital images, Image Group Number (film) 7645140, image 254, ( : accessed 13 Mar 2024).
  2. Henry Campbell Black, A Dictionary of Law (St. Paul, Minn. : West, 1891), 102, “attachment.”
  3. Ibid., 822, “non est inventus.”
  4. See FamilySearch Research Wiki (, “Glossary of United States Probate Terms,” rev. 5 Dec 2022.
  5. Black, A Dictionary of Law, 434, “estate.”
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