- Wig-Wags Series
On Slavery – 6 Chattels Personal
On November 16, 2008
Kenneth Stampp’s chapter “Chattels Personal” is excellent. I suspect that “chattel” is not a word most of us learn unless we study law or Antebellum American history in depth. Its meaning in the context of slavery is, of course, that person’s slaves were consider legally as “chattel personal.”
Being a person quite taken with words, I did a little research on the origins of this one and found it informative. Interestingly, a search for the etymology of the word found some disagreement. The following perspective comes from French: A Linguistic Introduction.
“Chattel comes from the French noun cheptel used to designate all movable property, but now is restricted to ‘livestock’. English has gone a step further: cattle used to designate any movable property, then all livestock, and now is generally restricted to bovines. English also has the word chattel, legally any type of movable property, but more specifically in modern usage, it refers to slaves. All of these terms are ultimately derived from the Latin word capitalis, which has been reintroduced in modern financial vocabulary, e.g. capital campaign in fundraising. This term, in turn, is derived from the Latin word caput, ‘head’ (French chef), with the result that ‘head of cattle’, our original example, ultimately is a ‘head of things with heads’!” 
This from A New Law Dictionary and Glossary…
“…the singular chattel seems to be immediately formed from the Fr. chatelle, or chatel, (q.v.); the plural chattels, (or, as it was formerly written, catals,) is supposed to be derived from the L. Lat., catalla, the ch being pronounced hard, as in the word charta, which is evident from the form of the old Norman plural, cateux, (q.v.). As to any further derivation, catalla or catalia is clearly shown by Spelman to be merely a contracted form of writing capitalia, which with the singular capitale, or captale, occurs frequently in the Saxon and early English laws. The primary meaning of capitalia was animals, beasts of husbandry, (otherwise call averia, q.v.) or cattle; in which last word it is still identically retained.
Capitalia is derived by Spelman from capita, heads; a term still popularly applied to beasts, as “so many “heads of cattle.” When the word took the form catalla, it continued to retain this primary meaning, but gradually acquired the secondary sense of movables of any kind, inanimate as well as animate, and finally became used to signify interests in lands.”
CHATTELS PERSONAL, otherwise called THINGS PERSONAL, comprise all sorts of things movable, as good, plate, money, jewels, implements of war, garments, animals and vegetable productions; as the frit or other part of a plant, when severed from the body of it, or the whole plant itself, when severed from th ground. Besides things moveable, they include also certain incorporeal rights or interestes, growing out of, or incident to them, such as patent rights and copyrights…” 
 French: A Linguistic Introduction
By Zsuzsanna Fagyal, Douglas Kibbee, Fred Jenkins
Published by Cambridge University Press, 2006
ISBN 0521821444, 9780521821445
337 pages (pp. 154-155), Accessed online, November 16, 2008, http://books.google.com/books?id=4yTA6SvGuekC&pg=PP1&dq=French:+A+Linguistic+Introduction#PPA154,M1
 A New Law Dictionary and Glossary
By Alexander M. Burrill
Published by The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 1998
ISBN 1886363323, 9781886363328
1099 pages (pp. 207-208), Accessed online, November 16, 2008, http://books.google.com/books?id=DeQYXYMBtwgC&printsec=frontcover&dq=etemology+of+the+word+chattel#PPA208,M1
Kenneth M. Stampp, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South.