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Assign is typically a verb.

Only in legal writing do we see it used as a noun, meaning "the entity to which something is assigned," and usually as part of a "successors and assigns" clause.

Everywhere else the noun describing the entity to which something is assigned is assignee.

Any ideas on the origin of the peculiar legal usage?

  • Legal terminology seems to have many archaic terms entrenched due to tradition. – Barmar Nov 25 '15 at 22:02
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Per the OED, the word comes to us from the Old French assigner, past participle a(s)signé, meaning to assign. When Middle English adopted the word, it was spelled "assigne" and pronounced with three syllables. In the 15th century, the final 'e' on many words became mute and were eventually dropped. This happened to assigne, which became the modern assign. The same thing happened with avowe, which lost its final vowel to become avow.

To the victors go the spoils as well as the task of setting up the courts, which is what the Normans did in England after 1066. The language of the law courts was French and over the years developed into an archaic version of that language called "law French", which preserved the old vocabulary for legal terms. Presumably to preserve the distinction between the three-syllable law French assigne and the two-syllable, mute end vowel assigne, the former picked up an extra 'e' at the end.

  • I can see how the French verb ended up truncated. An undoubtedly the legal version derives from archaic forms. But is it clear why/how the truncated assign would be accepted as a noun form at any point in that process? – feetwet Nov 26 '15 at 0:30
  • @feetwet It was a noun in Old French, nominalized from the past participle of the verb to mean (the one) assigned. When I say the ME "adopted the word," I mean ME adopted the noun. – deadrat Nov 26 '15 at 2:50
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I had a recent experience in this realm by filing a patent as inventor at the USPTO (US Patent and Trademark Office). I had to sign a document called ASSIGNMENT transfering all my rights to a company (THE ASSIGNEE). Perhaps because ASSIGNS used as generic noun in a broader sense encompasses all the assigns including the assignees too. Hope I was not mistaken!

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