Does "dead hand" make you picture a pale dismembered hand creeping slowly toward its next unsuspecting victim? If so, you're in for a surprise - but not a scary one. "Dead hand" is a literal translation of the etymology of an older English word, "mortmain," which comes from the Old French words morte (meaning "dead") and "main" (meaning "hand"). In very unspooky terms, the words describe property that is left to a company, church, or charity in perpetuity. The "oppressive past influence" sense of both "mortmain" and "dead hand" developed from the idea of the dead exercising posthumous control over their property by dictating how it must be used after they die.