Property is a central concept in social relations, not only in capitalism. What makes the word property a keyword, as well as the notion of property a difficult concept, is that its technical senses in fields including law and social theory (as well as, now less influentially, in logic) interact with and complicate the word’s more general senses. Even in the broad meaning of ownership, property denotes a fundamental social relation or degree of socially approved control: between human beings and land (‘real’ property); with tangible belongings (chattels); and increasingly with intangibles, including financial investments and ideas (intellectual property). But use of the term is not always attitudinally neutral. Property is sometimes used descriptively, to categorize whatever is owned; sometimes approvingly, to naturalise the social relations which underpin capitalism; and sometimes pejoratively, for instance when deployed in wider criticism of capitalism (e.g. in incantation of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s ‘property is theft’). In serving such referentially broad and attitudinally contrasting functions, property acts as a lightning rod in efforts to delineate, test and contest boundaries as regards ownership and commodification.
Property comes into English from Anglo-Norman properté and Middle French propreté, with their own antecedents in Latin proprius and proprietas. Some of the polysemy now associated with property existed in the Latin antecedents. Adjectival proprius meant ‘particular’ or ‘peculiar’, and conveyed distinctiveness of the self, for instance in contrast with alienus meaning ‘other’ or ‘foreign’ (cf. English alienation) and with communis, ‘common’ or ‘shared’. The noun proprietas conveyed an analogous sense of ‘characteristic’, and was often combined with rerum (of things). But proprietas is also cited with an overt ‘ownership’ sense, and was also commonly used to convey aptness or suitability, reflected in English proper and propriety, as well as in OED sense 2 of property itself.
In Latin, the political concept of property was discussed using words other than proprietas (e.g. bona, fortuna, possessiones, moventes). So while Greek investigation of political relationships continued into Classical Rome, such discussion collided in the Latin with other senses of proprius and proprietas, in ways that complicate subsequent use of English property.
In English, property is attested from late 14c in four of its main later senses.
- As an attribute, characteristic, or quality. This is OED sense 1b, effectively an application to a part of something of an overall characteristic quality, hence character or nature, indicated by the (now obsolete, from 18c) OED sense 1a.
- As the quality of being proper or appropriate; fitness or suitability (e.g. in relation to dress and manners, or use of words). This sense, now also obsolete (with no recorded use after 1740), allows a connection between the favourable sense of aptness or suitability and the neutral sense of ‘attribute’.
- As an appurtenance or adjunct; something belonging to a thing. While now obsolete in the straightforward ‘adjunct’ meaning, this sense allows a shift of emphasis for property in the direction of the word’s later dominant meaning: that of possession and ownership. Especially when used as a mass noun, property in this sense conveys ‘that which one owns’; possessions collectively; a person's goods or wealth. Shifts of emphasis and attitude in this sense continue between late 14c and 18c, but crucially during 17c (when a traditional system of property rights was gradually displaced by more comprehensive market relations that allowed such rights to be seen as almost unlimited, exclusive possession).
- As the abstract enjoyment of rights: the general fact or basis of possessing something or being owned. This sense is found especially but not only in legal discourse, and indicates title to the use or disposal of something: proprietorship. Property in this context is a general relation between people, rather than between people and things: a right held by one person to exclude someone else from something, or, in the case of common property, an individual's right not to be excluded from something. In political discussion, the scope of this meaning poses a major challenge in efforts to define, justify or challenge the social institution of property, explored for example in Locke (who set out a case for an individual right of unlimited appropriation, influencing the French and American revolutions), in critiques mounted by Rousseau, Proudhon, Marx and others, and fully into contemporary social theory.
Shifts of meaning and emphasis in the interaction between the four senses described above contribute to a major historical realignment of economic and social relations. The relevant shifts in meaning are found not only in property itself, but in other words in the same semantic field including for instance market and estate. A significant narrowing of one meaning of property itself (attested from early 18c) is towards the sense of a piece of land under one ownership: a landed ‘estate’, then later any residential or other building (with or without associated land) or separately owned part of a building (such as an apartment). When property is deployed in ideological warfare two centuries later, accordingly, appeals to a property-owning democracy can lead -- despite differences between the political parties involved -- not only towards sale of council houses, or at least conversion from one kind of lease to another (property as land and buildings) but to disposal of other public assets in the form of shares, along with encouragement to the electorate to view themselves less as a public enjoying relational rights and obligations in a society (even in a ‘commons’) and increasingly as customers and consumers.
Many compounds involving property date from middle years of 19c, and relate to changing attitudes associated with this larger social trend: property class; property mark; property market; property owner and property qualification, important historically in struggles over eligibility to vote. Property speculator dates from roughly the same period, bringing later property developer, as well as, from 1970s, property tax.
In contemporary use property is often indeterminate or ambiguous between its general meaning and technical senses that the word has acquired in legal and political discourse. Many speakers consider property as a matter of consumable things, while in law and social theory property is typically less concerned with things exclusively owned than of defined rights indicating an enforceable but specified claim to use of or benefit from something. Physical ownership or occupancy, in the popular view, can simply presume as already in place a completed system of property as a social institution. In theoretical discussion, by contrast, it is common for that view to be dismissed as merely a misunderstanding, rather than acknowledged as an alternative meaning fuelling powerful aspirations also prompted by the complex history.
Spread of the (individualistic) ‘exclusionary possession’ sense can put pressure on the ‘simultaneous rights and obligations’ (social) sense in varying contexts. Potential misunderstandings may for instance surround the scope of what property should be able to denote: land, objects, labour; in some societies and historical periods, also slaves, servants and wives; a threshold triggering electoral franchise; and an indefinite range of intangibles (from copyright, trademark signs and image rights through to claimed ownership in synthetic cell material and the human genome).
Misunderstandings may also arise as regards the degree of ownership enjoyed (e.g. as presumed private property), by comparison with specified and limited entitlement. Struggles over these two dimensions of the meaning of property combine in fields as various as stem cell research, global markets in GM seeds, media content and software downloading, as well as in disputes over post-war reparation. Such troubles may become especially acute in countries such as China, where a transition is underway towards a system of private ‘ownership’ embedded within a state command economy.
With the increased reach of brands and branding, contemporary questions raised by property as possession also begin to link up with older meanings of property as attribute, character, and identity. In a convergence between the notion of celebrity and a perception that people ‘are what they own’, the literary and theatrical sense of property, applied to people as well as to inert props from the 1940s, opens up the possibility of not simply being a person of property but in an enlarged personal-branding market becoming oneself a property, of even a hot property.