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The Meaning of “My”—a commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was posted on Newyorktimes.com on September 7, 2010.

The Meaning of “My”
By Ian Ayres ’86

One of my summertime reading pleasures has been reading C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters for the first time. As a new generation of property student begins the school year, I thought it would be useful to pass on this commentary on the most property-laden adjective, the possessive “my.” In this excerpt, a devil named Screwtape is continuing to tutor his nephew on how best to steer humans toward “our Father below”:

We teach them not to notice the different senses of the possessive pronoun—the finely graded differences that run from “my boots” through “my dog”, “my servant”, “my wife”, “my father”, “my master” and “my country”, to “my God”. They can be taught to reduce all these senses to that of “my boots,” the “my” of ownership.

Even in the nursery a child can be taught to mean by “my Teddy-bear” not the old imagined recipient of affection to whom it stands in a special relation (for that is what the Enemy will teach them to mean if we are not careful) but “the bear I can pull to pieces if I like.” And at the other end of the scale, we have taught men to say “My God” in a sense not really very different from “My boots”, meaning “The God on whom I have a claim for my distinguished services and whom I exploit from the pulpit—the God I have done a corner in.” And all the time the joke is that the word “Mine” in its fully possessive sense cannot be uttered by a human being about anything. In the long run either Our Father or the Enemy will say “Mine” of each thing that exists, and especially of each man. They will find out in the end, never fear, to whom their time, their souls, and their bodies really belong—certainly not to them, whatever happens.

These “finely graded differences” are often lost in legal conceptions of both real and intellectual property.