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'Imminent' changes are afoot

In “eminent domain,” a government can seize property for public use, as long as it compensates the owner. In “imminent domain,” it stands to reason, the government wants to do it NOW.

Except that there is no such thing as “imminent domain.” It’s a mistake—a common one, but a mistake nonetheless.

The only thing “eminent” and “imminent” have in common is that they sound alike.

“Eminent” means “projecting, distinguished, unimpeachable.” A cardinal in the Catholic Church is called “His Eminence,” a person of prominence may be called “an eminent journalist,” and the government is the “eminent authority” for purposes of seizing land.

“Imminent” means “impending, approaching, certain.” It often has a dark connotation, of bad things about to happen, but not always. Dark clouds and lighting mean a storm is “imminent”; white smoke means the announcement of a new pope is “imminent.”

It’s easy to see how someone could confuse the two, especially if the someone is the person whose property is being seized. For that person, the loss of the property—their domain—is “imminent.” Unless, of course, there’s a lawsuit involved.

A few times, the seizure has been called “emanate domain.” That’s a clear mistake: “emanate” means “emit, give off, send out.” But there’s more etymological support for this mistake: The earliest uses of “emanate” related to laws and principles that “emanated” from “eminent” institutions, like churches, governments, and courts. Their roots though, are different: “Eminent” is from the Latin “eminere,” to stand out, while “emanate” is from the Latin “emanare,” to flow.

But wait! There’s more!

Throw into the mix “immanent.” That’s not a misspelling of “imminent.” It means “inherent, innate, indwelling.” Though it’s relatively rare and is primarily used philosophically or theologically (“the immanent goodness of human nature”), it does occasionally creep in where “imminent” or “eminent” is intended.

Garner’s Modern American Usage says the incorrect substitution of “imminent” when “eminent” is meant is the most common of the errors. It lists the mistaken use of “imminent” for “eminent” and vice versa both at Stage 2 of the five-stage Language-Change Index. That makes it a capital sin, not a mortal one, though misusing “immanent” for “imminent” is at that level, being at Stage 1.

If Nexis is any guide (and it’s an anecdotal one), “imminent domain” is indeed imminent: It appears in more than 1,000 articles, while “eminent domain” barely breaks the 900 mark. To be fair, a few of the “imminent domain” entries are intended as plays on words, but nearly all are speaking of the land-grabbing right.

The idea that a government or other legal authority can just take property goes back at least to the Old Testament, when Ahab, the king of Israel, wanted Naboth’s vineyard and offered compensation for it. Naboth refused and Ahab and his wife, Jezebel, plotted the death of Naboth, so they could seize the vineyard. The prophet Elijah condemned Ahab for this double injustice, but more recent adjudications are usually in favor of the sovereignty’s right to seize.

Hmm. Does that make “eminent domain” less “imminent” if a representative of the “immanent” deity is involved?

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.