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I've seen dozens of arguments for the correctness and/or precedence of one version over the other, but have not come across compelling sources or well-documented explanations for either.

Does anyone have solid information on which came first, and how it was derived?

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It goes back to at least 1732, here as possession is nine points of the law – FumbleFingers Aug 1 '11 at 18:02
up vote 11 down vote accepted

According to Wikipedia, both English versions derive from a Scottish expression "possession is eleven points in the law, and they say there are but twelve". Wikipedia itself doesn't have a source or etymology for that expression, but I found it in a play by Colley Cibber, "Woman's Wit", from the late 1600s, so it's at least that old.

The term's basic meaning is simply that the overwhelming majority of statutes in the law are based on, or define and regulate, possession of things of value, such as goods, services rendered, money and land. So, at its core it's simply a statement of a known truth.

However, the term as commonly used is a synonym for "finder's keepers", thus referring to a key point involving possession. The fact that a person is in possession of some item of value is usually prima facie that that person is the legal owner of said item, and absent any evidence of a superior claim to the item, or that the person in ownership acquired it illegally, that decision will stand. In terms of things which are not legal to possess, the possession is prima facie that the owner is guilty of the crime, and will be found so if there is no compelling evidence to refute it.

The term is also often used to describe "adverse possession of real property". Simply stated, a person who finds apparently abandoned or unimproved land, improves said property and occupies it for a time without hindrance, is considered the "adverse owner" of that property and is entitled to it, despite there possibly being an "actual owner" who holds a title to the land. Adverse possession is also the legal concept behind liens; a person who has improved some property knowingly belonging to another has a claim on a portion of the property equal to the value of improvements rendered, until settled by some other means. There are similar statutes for material goods; if you find money or something else of value, and nobody else offers a valid claim to it given reasonable opportunity, it's yours.

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The same is true for consequenses of possesion. Having the property may require you to pay certain taxes, obtain proper licences, or be subject to criminal possession charges. – Chad Aug 1 '11 at 20:55

Q: Does anyone have solid information on which came first?

Eleven points of the law came first (found in print in 1639), followed by nine points of the law (1672) and nine parts of the law (1785), with nine-tenths of the law being the most recent (1814).

Here's the earliest three occurrences I found in Google Books for each version.

Nine-tenths of the law

  • 1814's Patronage, Volume 4 by Maria Edgeworth:

... and save you a vast deal of trouble and vexation ; possession," added he, laughing, " being nine tenths of the law."

  • 1818's Woman; or, Minor maxims, a sketch by Maria Elizabeth Budden:

Mr. Knowlesdon was ready to exclaim, that possession is nine-tenths of the law, and that he could be justified in destroying so much mental poison.

  • 1821's Memoir of the life of lieut. gen. Daniel Burr. With a supplement by Daniel Burr:

A great number of persons are disposed of, and it would be extremely difficult, now, if Sir E. Stanhope gets the possession without any further evidence, it would be hard if Sir E. Stanhope were to say, Possession is nine-tenths of the law; it is not necessary for me to give further evidence ; and he might throw every difficulty in the way of Mr. Jackson's title.

Nine parts of the law

  • 1785's Memoirs and adventures of a flea:

"I would have released it; but possession being nine parts of the law, I even left it to " the last claimant, to die, like many more, with old age and misfortunes!"

  • 1790's Memoirs Of His Own Life by Tate Wilkinson:

Mrs. Barrington had an excellent wardrobe of her own ; and being the intimate of Mrs. Woffington, had the entire treafure of her tragedy jewels, which at that time Mrs. Barrington eyed as her own property, by having nine parts of the law in her favour — possession.

  • 1798's British critic: and quarterly theological review, Volume 12:

This is a mode of argument similar indeed to the practice of the great nation, and perhaps both agree that possession is nine parts of the law.

Nine points of the law

  • In 1678's Maronides, or, Virgil Travesty: Being a New Paraphrase in Burlesque Verse, Upon the Fifth and Sixth Book of Virgil's Aeneids by John Phillips:

Quo Hero when that same he saw,
Now for the nine points of the Law,
I mean possession
and with that
He flew to seize upon the gate.

  • From 1692's The Present State of Europe for the Month of February, 1692:

But for all his Demand of 300000 Crowns, Qui tenet teneat, Possession, is Nine points of the Law.

The Latin is part of qui tenet teneat, qui dolet doleat: "he who holds may go on holding, and he who complains may go on complaining".

  • And 1699's The Present state of Europe, for the Month of August 1699:

But in good Policy , there is nothing like Possession , it is Nine Points of the Law ; the strongest Presumptions are still for the strongest side ; and if the Judges are not favourable, there is no need of an Appeal ; for he that is the Possessor is able to do himself Justice.

Eleven points of the law

  • 1629's Remaines concerning Britaine, has an alphabetical list of proverbs in the chapter of "Wife Speeches":

Praise a faire day at night.
Possession is eleuen points of the Law.
Reckoners without their host must reckon twice.

  • 1639's The Historie of the Holy Warre by Thomas Fuller:

At this day the Turrks hath eleven points of the law in Jerusalem, I mean possession: and which is more, prescription of a hundred and twentie yeares, if you date from the time it came into the Ottoman familie, but far more; if you compute it from such time as the Mammaluke Turks have enjoyed it.

  • 1657's Historical Collections of ecclesiastic affairs in Scottland and related to them by Richard Watson:

By all these unchristian proceedings, having speeded on their impatient Wishes, and fretted open a passage for that Royal soul to expire, they become soon Lords not onely of the Congregation, but Countrey , and having eleven points of the law (their young Queen and her Husband being absent in France ) upon advantage enough they capitulate with their Majesties for the twelfth.

Note the mention of the twelfth.

  • 1658's A practical and polemical commentary: or, exposition upon the third and and fourth Chapters of the latter Epistle of Saint Paul to Timothy by Thomas Hall:

Besides Satan hath a strong plea against the soul, he'l plead prescription, and so many yeares possession which is eleven Points in Law.

Bonus: "Possession is Eleven Points of the Law" is the moral of "A hedge-hog and a snake" in a 1692 Aesop's Fables.

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