The Grammarphobia Blog

The wages of sin

Q: I teach English in a program at a local church. Years ago I was asked a grammar question that has haunted my subconscious ever since. Why is the verb singular in this familiar Bible verse: “For the wages of sin is death”? Every popular translation, from King James to the English Standard Version, has it the same way.

A: We’re happy to be linguistic exorcists and drive out the grammar spirits that are haunting your subconscious.

Why, you ask, does the plural noun take a singular verb in that excerpt from Romans 6:23? Because “wages” was often treated as singular in the past.

The Oxford English Dictionary has published references from the late 1300s to the 1700s of the plural noun construed as singular.

In fact, the OED’s first citation of this usage is from the 1395 revision of the Wycliffe Bible of 1382: “The wagis of synne is deth.”

Here’s a later example from a 1679 book about Islam by the Anglican cleric Lancelot Addison: As for his wages, it amounted to so little, that it would not do him much service.”

The word “wages” here, according to the OED, is being used figuratively to mean reward or recompense.

English borrowed the word “wage” from Anglo-Norman, which got it from Old French, where both wage and gage meant pledge in different geographic regions.

When the noun “wage” entered English in the 14th century, it meant a pledge of security as well as a payment for services.

Why a pledge? John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the ancient source of the two Old French words was wathjam, a prehistoric Germanic root for pledge, and an ancestor of the English word “wedding.”

Although the pledge sense of “wage” is now considered obsolete, the meaning is alive in the English words “engage” and “mortgage.” (We had a posting earlier this year about “mortgage.”)

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