The Grammarphobia Blog

Mortgage interest

Q: Hardly a week passes without something in the news about mortgage hanky-panky. After reading one of the stories, I looked up the word “mortgage” and learned that it comes from old words for “dead” and “pledge.” Is that because a borrower’s pledge of repayment survives his death?

A: “Mortgage” is now such a common term that most of us are unaware that it was once a compound with a literal meaning: dead pledge. the words “mort” and “gage” are rare or defunct English terms for “dead” and “pledge.”

Why was a secured loan regarded as a dead pledge? There are differing explanations, but none have to do with the death of the borrower, as you suggest.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology explains the meaning of “mortgage” this way: “so called because the debt becomes void or ‘dead’ when the pledge was redeemed.”

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says, “The notion behind the word is supposedly that if the mortgagor fails to repay the loan, the property pledged as security is lost, or becomes ‘dead,’ to him or her.”

Which explanation is right? Both of them, it turns out, even though they look at the transaction from different points of view.

Thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary, we know what lawyers in the 1600s thought about the notion of a “mortgage.”

For an “explanation of the etymological meaning of the term current among 17th-cent. lawyers,” the OED directs the reader to a quotation from Sir Edward Coke’s The First Part of the Institutes of the Lawes of England:

“It seemeth that the cause why it is called mortgage is, for that it is doubtful whether the Feoffor will pay at the day limited such summe or not, & if he doth not pay, then the Land which is put in pledge vpon condition for the payment of the money, is taken from him for euer, and so dead to him vpon condition, &c. And if he doth pay the money, then the pledge is dead as to the Tenant, &c.”

The term was first used in the 1300s in a general rather than a legal sense, however. It originally meant an arrangement for acquiring a benefit at the expense of a risk or constraint.

In fact, the first recorded use is a rather romantic one. It’s from John Gower’s long poem Confessio Amantis, written sometime before 1398: “In mariage His trouthe plight lith in morgage, Which if he breke, it is falshode.” (In marriage, his troth plight lies in mortgage, which is falsehood to break.)

And here’s another example of the general use, from William Hazlitt’s Table Talk: Or, Original Essays on Men and Manners (1822): “They will purchase the hollow happiness of the next five minutes, by a mortgage on the independance and comfort of years.”

The legal term “mortgage,” in which a debtor borrows money in exchange for an interest in real or personal property, developed in the mid-15th century.

Now for a closer look at the parts of this venerable compound.

The old adjective “mort,” now very rare, was once used in English to mean “dead.” And the noun “mort” meant “death.” Both are derived from Latin and came into English from Anglo-Norman and Old French sometime in the 14th century, but have since died out.

A related word, the now defunct “morth,” is a much older term for “death.” It came into Old English through Germanic sources.

Both the Germanic and Latinate versions—“morth” and “mort”—ultimately come from the same prehistoric Indo-European base, which has been reconstructed as mer- (to die).

This word element (mer-) was also a part of the Old English morthor, now “murder.”

The second part of the compound, “gage,” was once a more common English word than it is today.

It came into the language in the 14th century from Old French (guage or gage), but the French got the word from Germanic sources, according to the OED.

The ancestor is a prehistoric Old Germanic word reconstructed as wadjo, which is also the source of our words “wage” and “wed” (originally a pledge).

The English term originally meant a pledge or challenge to do battle. The “gage” was usually a glove thrown to the ground.

In the 15th century, the OED says, “gage” came to mean “something of value deposited to ensure the performance of some action, and liable to forfeiture in case of non-performance; a pawn, pledge, security.”

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