Earlier this year I watched some sessions from the 2011 Los Angeles Times Festival of Books as they were broadcast live on television on the C-SPAN2 cable channel. In a session with Garrett Graff about the FBI, I heard the phrase ten-year tenure, which describes the maximum amount of time that anyone can now continue as the director of that organization. (The term limits were imposed after J. Edgar Hoover was the director of the FBI and its predecessor from 1924 to 1972, a period that many felt was much too long for one person to hold on to that powerful position.)
In the euphonious phrase “ten-year tenure,” which almost sounds like the same thing being said twice, I’d like to focus on the word tenure, which English took from the Old French noun teneure that meant literally ‘a holding.’ The term was originally a legal one; as Noah Webster commented in 1828: “Tenure in general… is the particular manner of holding real estate.” As a follow-up, he defined tenure as a ‘manner of holding in general,’ and commented that “In absolute governments, men hold their rights by a precarious tenure.”
Old French teneure was based on the verb tenir ‘to hold,’ which Spanish speakers of course recognize as the cognate of tener, whose ‘hold’ sense has broadened to include the more general ‘have.’ It turns out that teneure was a development that occurred in French but not in Spanish, so an online search for the Spanish equivalent of English tenure is given as arriendo with respect to land, and ocupación with respect to holding a position or office; for the type of tenure associated with a university, the dictionary gives Spanish titularidad.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman