chat·​tel ˈcha-tᵊl How to pronounce chattel (audio)
plural chattels
: an item of tangible movable or immovable property except real estate and things (such as buildings) connected with real property
These statutes do not apply to personal property; for chattels, an oral statement of donative intent plus delivery still suffices.William M. McGovern, Jr. et al.
sometimes used as a mass noun
The program takes advantage of a New Hampshire law that requires all manufactured homes … to be titled as real property instead of chattel, said Patrick McCarthy, Fannie Mae vice president for community lending.Brad Finkelstein
: an enslaved person held as the legal property of another : bondman
He had struck down my personality, had subjected me to his will, made property of my body and soul, reduced me to a chattelFrederick Douglass
Some, most notably the Quakers, hoped that moral suasion would convince slaveholders to free their chattels.Mary Beth Norton et al.
often used as a mass noun
… [George] Washington is tainted by our country's original sin: slavery. He owned other human beings as chattel.Robert Schlesinger
Ultimately, the book illuminates both the tragedy of holding human chattel and the corruption that flows from such inhumanity.Melba Newsome
see also chattel slavery

Examples of chattel in a Sentence

an amendment to end the keeping of humans as chattel packed up all her chattels and moved to a new state
Recent Examples on the Web The ground beneath and surrounding the stages at Fort Monroe was where dozens of enslaved Africans were sold as human chattel in 1619. Heather Augustyn, Spin, 10 Oct. 2023 Will robots fashioned to look like us, and programmed to accede to our wishes, spur people to think of them as friends and co-workers—or to treat them like chattel? Sue Halpern, The New Yorker, 26 July 2023 Men, women, newborns, put in the bowels of ships, shackled, made to row from Africa to America, then brought here and sold like chattel, separated from their children, beat, whipped, worked to death, raped. Kaitlyn Huamani, Peoplemag, 24 July 2023 For the next 60 years, Douglass would make his mark on the world, becoming one of the most powerful voices against the cruel institution of chattel enslavement. Deneen L. Brown, Washington Post, 1 July 2023 Meanwhile, its Center for Family History offers in-person and virtual resources that go beyond census papers to trace lineage via bills of sale, property ownership and other records that in themselves drive home the chattel labor trade’s inhumanity. Devon M. Sayers, CNN, 19 June 2023 Yet Hayes-Williams spent hours digging through state archives, including correspondence between Ridout and Sharpe discussing her ancestors in the same context as chattel. Fredrick Kunkle, Washington Post, 16 May 2023 Slavery was upheld in our original Constitution, as a propitiation between Southern states—where the economy thrummed on the backs of human chattel—and the states that had either no use for slavery or were considering its abolition. Rich Logis, The New Republic, 19 Apr. 2023 Baltimore, a major port and shipbuilding center, was a pioneer in the coastal trade of human chattel. Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun, 5 May 2022 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'chattel.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


Middle English chatel "movable possession," often in plural chateles, chateus, borrowed from Anglo-French chatel "property, goods, wealth" (also continental Old French), going back to Medieval Latin capitāle "movable property, riches," noun derivative from neuter of capitālis "of the head, chief, principal" — more at capital entry 1

Note: Compare cattle, and see also note at the etymology of capital entry 2.

First Known Use

1549, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of chattel was in 1549

Dictionary Entries Near chattel

Cite this Entry

“Chattel.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 10 Dec. 2023.

Kids Definition


chat·​tel ˈchat-ᵊl How to pronounce chattel (audio)
: a piece of property (as animals, money, or goods) other than real estate

Legal Definition


chat·​tel ˈchat-ᵊl How to pronounce chattel (audio)
: an item of tangible or intangible personal property
especially : chattel personal in this entry

Note: In some jurisdictions the term chattel is restricted to items of tangible and movable personal property. Other jurisdictions also classify intangible assets and property items as chattels.

chattel personal plural chattels personal
: an item of tangible movable personal property (as livestock or an automobile) that is not permanently connected with real estate
chattel real plural chattels real
: an interest (as a leasehold or profit a prendre) in an item of immovable property (as land or a building) that is less than a freehold estate compare fixture

Note: Interests that are considered chattels real have been treated by the common law as personal property despite being interests in real property.


Old French chatel goods, property, from Medieval Latin capitale, from neuter of capitalis chief, principal see capital

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