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Signed, sealed and delivered

"Signed, sealed and delivered" seems simple enough, doesn't it? "Sign" is derived from Latin signum, which meant "sign" in the sense of a graphic symbol. Signum, in turn, derives from *sekw-, to follow (giving us words like sequel, second, and so forth). Soldiers must follow the unit banner or flag, so the symbol which is followed became the signum. In an illiterate world, you would execute a document with your "x" or other personal symbol, your "sign" or "signature" (which is derived from the past participle of the verb "to sign"). When folks of a later, literate generation subscribed their written names, they would "sign" the document.

Latin Sigillum was the diminutive of signum, and thus a little sign or symbol. Parsed through Old French and Middle English, the word became seel, which by the 13th century was a device with a raised or incised emblem that could be impressed on wax to certify a signature or authenticate a document. Very early, "seal" gained the implication of formalizing a transaction, so that early religion spoke of souls "sealed" to God. A wax or lead seal might even be used to close up a folded or rolled document or letter so that the recipient could be sure it had been safe from prying eyes, giving rise to the sense of physically closing or securing a letter or package. Seals were also common in commerce and shipping to demonstrate that jars, bales, bags and boxes were whole and uncontaminated.

"Deliver" first meant to set free, a sense retained in a jail delivery (jail break) and in "deliver us from evil." The Latin root is liber, "free" as in liberty, liberal, supposedly derived from an IE root meaning grow, mount up. AHD confides that "the precise semantic development is obscure." The best guess I've seen is that liber originally meant a nobleman (i.e., someone who has been raised up) and came to mean free by association. (The similar appearing words deliberate, libra, liter, etc., are from a non-Indo-European root lithra, meaning weigh or scales.)

In its legal usage, "signed, sealed and delivered" has (or had, at least) a very narrow and specific significance. "Signed" is equivalent to "given by hand" or "given under my hand" and requires that the maker of a deed, grant or promise personally execute it, by mark or signature. "Sealed," now obsolete, meant that the maker had, in addition, affixed his seal, which was significant not to prove who the maker was (as a modern lawyer might think) but to waive any objection that the document (whatever it was) was not supported by adequate value received. A modern lawyer would understand "sealed" to mean that a notary has attested or authenticated the signature on the document. "Delivered" was particularly important for deeds and gifts-a gift or grant does not take effect until the property or a deed to the property is placed in the hands of the grantee or donee. In medieval practice, "livery of seisin" (literally, delivery of possession) required that if I wanted to grant you a piece of land, I had to go upon the property with you and hand you a clod of dirt from the land. For urban land, I would hand you the key to the front door.