Etymology of Mortgage

There are a lot of interesting, quirky etymologies in English, but one of my favourites is the word mortgage. It comes from old French and literally means ‘death promise,’ but why in modern English do we use it to describe the loan people get to purchase a house? Let’s first look at its two parts: mort and gage.

Death

Mort is French for ‘death’, and once you remember that, there are lot of words you’ll understand the meaning of. For example, mortal is an adjective that can mean ‘causing death’, as in the sentence, “He caught a mortal disease.” Other words you may have heard include mortuary and mortician. A mortuary is the place where we store dead bodies before burial, and the person who prepares the dead body is a mortician (think of mort and beautician). If you study economics or sociology, you may have encountered mortality rates, which are the number of people who die in a certain demographic, usually expressed per thousand, as demonstrated by the World Bank’s data.

Death Promise

This blog is getting a bit morbid (obsessed with death) now, so let’s get back to the word mortgage. The second half of the word – gage – means ‘promise’ in old French, completing the phrase ‘death promise’. The reason the French used this word to mean ‘loan to buy a house’ is because the loan was so big you were expected to keep paying it back until you died. I think it’s an interesting etymology, and hopefully after reading this article, you’ll be able to use the prefix mort to increase your vocabulary.

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