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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a financial lending agreement based on the value of the debtor’s property

an american house

If you’ve managed to escape the rack-renters and have found a place to call your own, there’s a good chance you’ll have (or, at least, will once have had but have now paid off, you lucky thing) a mortgage. In which case, it’ll likely come of no surprise to find out that a mortgage is literally a deal to the death:

Hmm. Suddenly, those rack-renters don’t look so bad.

The first half of the word mortgage is the Latin word for “death”, mors, which is the same root as in words like mortician, rigor mortis and immortal. The second half, however, is more obscure: gage is an old word for a pledge or a security that is put down “to ensure the performance of some action”, as the OED explains.

English borrowed the word mortgage from French sometime around the fourteenth century, and it steadily all but replaced (outside of esoteric legal literature, at least) the earlier Latin term mortuum vadium—literally a “dead pledge”. That in turn was paired with a vivum vadium, or a “living pledge”, which referred to someone borrowing money from someone in exchange for their allowing them to use their lands or estate, usually at a nominal annual fee gleaned from the profits of the land, until the debtor was able to repay the money.

All in all then, a mortgage is indeed literally a “death pledge”—but fear not, homeowners, because it’s not you that’s doing the dying any time soon. Instead, it’s thought that the “death” involved in the mortgage’s ominous “death pledge” isn’t that of the debtor, but rather either the debt itself, or the estate against which the debt is secured. That is to say, by entering into a mortgage, you “pledge” to continue paying your debt until it is entirely cleared (and thereby figuratively “killed”), otherwise your ownership of your estate “dies” if you can’t pay up.

On a side note, the “gage” of mortgage was also once the name of a glove, or similar item, thrown contemptuously to the ground at the start of a conflict or duel to announce someone’s intention to fight—that’s also why you engage someone in battle. Might be worth taking one with you next time you have an appointment at the bank.


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