What is ‘manumission’?

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: manumission….

I grew up on the west coast of Canada, where our prejudice tends to be displayed towards Asian, South-Asian or First Nations people. I don’t think I encountered a single black person in my many years of schooling, even when I’d advanced to university. The black population is very small in Vancouver although, of course, I’d encountered many black people during my travels to other parts of Canada and to the US.

Still, I thought I was relatively well read about the history of slavery. But that notion came to a crashing halt when I read the novel, The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (pictured above.) I had never before encountered the word manumission. Here is how Whitehead used it:

Free blacks carried proof of manumission or risked being conveyed into the clutches of slavery; sometimes they were smuggled to the auction block anyway.

Manumission is the act of a slave owner freeing his or her slaves. It comes from the Old French manumission meaning “freedom, emancipation,” and comes directly from Latin manumissionem, meaning “freeing of a slave.” It is derived from the word manus meaning “hand” — the same root applies to the word manual — and mittere, meaning  “let go, release.”

I guess I am fortunate to be so unfamiliar with the horrific language of slavery, but I’ve resolved to make myself better educated after reading this very fine and moving book.