I was trying to reverse-translate a quote I mistakenly believed to be originally in French that I saw in English, so as to find the source. (It turned out to be from Jeremy Bentham.) In the process, I had to look up the French for property (having forgotten the exact word), and discovered that the direct translation would be the feminine noun propriété.

Now, this looks suspiciously similar to the English propriety, and a quick search for the etymology of propriety suggests that it indeed is from the French propriété. Wiktionary lists some obsolete uses that are in spirit to the various meanings of property. For example:

The particular character or essence of someone or something; individuality. [14th-19th c.] . . . A piece of land owned by someone; someone's property. [from 15th c.]

Moreover, the Etymonline site gives some potential dates for when use of propriety might have shifted more to its current sense of proper character that seems distinct from the any of the meanings of property.

This is all good and well, but why might have such a shift in usage come up in the first place?


1 Answer 1


The word derives from the Latin proprietas which not only had the meaning of property but also took on that word's aspect of particular ownership [1], i.e., peculiarity. (The same goes for "peculiarity" which is related to the Latin pecu, herd (of cattle), the very exemplar of property [2].) Both words took on the meaning of one's own particular behavior, "propriety" becoming an appropriate standard for behavior, and "peculiarity" becoming a possibly strange behavior. Given the long co-existence of the two meanings, I doubt you'll find a definitive answer to your question why.

  1. Cassell's New Latin Dictionary
  2. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology

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