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In another forum I was reading this answer which makes the following (unsourced) claim:

Locke's way of putting it was that the material a person gathers and develops through labor are a property of that person, in the same sense that (say) one talks about 'weight' as a property of a material object, which is where we get the term 'property' we use today.

Now I am somewhat familiar with Locke's Labor Theory of Property and this is a fair abbreviated summary of it. However, the last bit "...which is where we get the term 'property' we use today" was new to me and somewhat surprising.

The reviews of Locke that I have read have generally talked about it (the Labor Theory of Property) as advancing a justification for the individual's preeminent ownership of property, as though "property" already had that meaning. None that I can recall implied that Locke was actually creating a new meaning of the word property, but these were articles on history and political science, not specifically on linguistics or etymology.

So was Locke really the origin of this meaning of the word property?

I have searched for this online but all I have been able to find is the etymology of the word itself (Middle English, etc.), but nothing specific about the source of this meaning of property as "physical objects or things that are owned by someone or something", as opposed to the implied prior meaning as "a quality or attribute of something".

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  • If this gets closed here, I'd suggest asking on the English Language stack which handles more English-specific questions than this one.
    – Draconis
    Feb 7 at 15:51
  • Etymonline expressly mentions that the ‘thing owned’ sense is attested from the 1300s, but was rare before the 1600s. So no, it didn’t originate with Locke, though I have no idea if perhaps he had a hand in it becoming more common from the 17th century onwards. Feb 7 at 15:52
  • @Draconis Fair, but I’ve seen a number of questionable responses there and I was really hoping for a professional’s insight. Feb 7 at 17:02
  • it's a mistake to assume there were more specialists present in here than over there, and even worse to assume any linguist specialized in English, well in contrast to specialists in ELU.SE.
    – vectory
    Mar 20 at 6:56
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The best way to resolve questions of this sort is to consult the Oxford English Dictionary, which is huge even in the micro-print version. Or, online if you have access through some library. It sorts out the different uses of words rather thoroughly, and gives historical attestations.

Consulting the OED, you can see that property is certifiably Middle English, 13th C, and the sense

A (usually material) thing belonging to a person, group of persons, etc.; a possession; (as a mass noun) that which one owns; possessions collectively; a person's goods, wealth, etc.

is supported with examples centuries before publication of Two treatises of government.

a1393 J. Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.) ii. 2377 (MED)
Supplant..Fulofte happneth forto mowe Thing which an other man hath sowe, And makth comun of proprete With sleihte and with soubtilite.

a1400 (aCursor Mundi (Vesp.) 28389 (MED) Haue i tan bath aght and fe O þam þat had na propur-te.

1526 W. Bonde Pylgrimage of Perfection i. sig. Dviiv They..had no property: but all was in common

a1500 tr. Thomas à Kempis De Imitatione Christi (Trin. Dublin) (1893) 113 Þat þou mowe be dispoiled of all maner propirte.

1526 W. Bonde Pylgrimage of Perfection i. sig. Dviiv They..had no property: but all was in common.

1604 W. Shakespeare Hamlet ii. ii. 572 A King, Vpon whose property and most deare life, A damn'd defeate was made

As for "the source", since this happened well before the period where there is a permanent record of everything anyone said, the best you can hope for is to carefully study documents from the relevant period, looking for changes in word use perhaps associated with some social movement. Locke used an existing sense of property, and being one of the best know authors, may get "credit". Credit may be due if his writings provably caused a significant frequency of use in that sense, but that's a big research project.

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Since this is being asked here instead of on ELU, I'll focus on non-English examples. From Cicero in the first century BCE (Epistulae ad Familiares 7.30.2, to Manius Curius):

Cujus quoniam proprium te esse scribis mancipio et nexo, meum autem usu et fructu, contentus isto sum. Id enim est cujusque proprium, quo quisque fruitur atque utitur.
You write that you are his property, by ownership and by contract, but mine by profit and enjoyment; I'm happy with that, because that is [one definition of] someone's property, that which they can enjoy and profit from.

This word proprium is a distant ancestor of English "property" and is clearly used here in the sense of "a thing/person belonging to someone". So I'd be very surprised if Locke was the first person to use it that way in English.

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  • I don’t really think you say proprius is an ancestor of ’property’ – that would, if anything, be proprietas. Proprius is an adjective, the ancestor of proper, and it seems to be being used adjectivally in the Cicero quote as well, meaning ‘belonging to’. The central point still stands, of course, that it means ‘belonging to’ and not ‘inherent to’ (also attested for the noun according to Lewis & Short), just the word class is different. Feb 7 at 18:07
  • @JanusBahsJacquet I don't call it an adjective here because it seems to be neuter—the first instance could be masculine since it's accusative, but the second seems to me like it should be nominative. Regardless, though, proprietas is derived from proprius through productive affixes so I don't see anything wrong with calling them both ancestors of the English; I'd likewise say that "sequence" descends from sequor even though the actual form it comes from is sequentia.
    – Draconis
    Feb 7 at 18:16
  • It’s nominative, yes, but modifying id, so neuter: ‘because that is [proper] to someone which someone benefits from and uses’. In a broader sense, they’re both ancestral to English, of course, but one more directly than the other – sort of like a great uncle is also an ancestor, but not in quite the same way that a grandparent is. Feb 7 at 18:24
  • "Proprius is an adjective", "the word class is different". Nonsense, -us is -us is -us. But -ium is a different matter, maybe genetive (as in homo) and thus maybe *"of right", since ownership rights, ownership, owning and owing--or possession and belonging--are trivially conflated. (for homo "man" as "(one) of the earth", cf. Meier-Brügger or any good introduction on PIE morphology)
    – vectory
    Mar 20 at 7:11
  • *-tas, while uncertain, can likewise be understood as from adjectival syntax, if *-s is the nominative noun forming suffix, but *-eh2 clearly (well, difficultly) associated with adjectival morphology and deverbals, not to mention the unclear identity of *-t-, or *-teh2. There's a number of similar affixes (e.g. *-iH, *-niH, etc. innovated along with feminen grammatical gender, which remains mysterious to me, so beware if I made a mistake. I. e. I would appreciate if the answer would go into more detail. Cp. regnum, regina, rex, regie, by the way)
    – vectory
    Mar 20 at 7:17

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