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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

In a word: unalienable

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a moderately obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar — another brick to add to the wall of your working vocabulary. This week's word:


As Mr. Jefferson wrote, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among those are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Unalienable means “incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred,” Merriam-Webster tells us, with the additional information that inalienable has become the more common form.

The Latin alius, “other,” contributes to alien, as an adjective meaning belonging to another person, place, or thing, owing allegiance to another country, or just “strange”; as a noun meaning a person from another country or an extraterrestrial. The word has been in English since the fourteenth century.

Alienate, to make hostile or to cause estrangement, in common usage, dates from the early sixteenth century. It also has a legal sense of transferring a property or right by an action rather than by the course of law. Unalienable crops up in the early years of the seventeenth century, inalienable in the middle of the seventeenth century.

Example: Not surprisingly, corpus research shows that unalienable commonly appears today in the context of the Declaration of Independence, but there is this sentence from a San Francisco Chronicle article in 2008, “State loves to change the law of the land,” about proposals on the November ballot that year to add to the hundreds of amendments to the state constitution: “But it's hard to say exactly what doesn't belong there, given that the Constitution already contains such minutiae as the unalienable right of Californians to fish on public lands.”

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