A reader wrote me asking about this word. It seems she was conversing with someone from Holland and upon telling him that her husband was a mortgage broker, the Dutchman assumed he was a mortician. She wanted to know where the word mortgage came from and if it was etymologically related to mortician and mortuary.

The two words are etymologically related. They both derive from the Latin mori meaning to die (via the Old French mort). In the case of mortician, the logical connection with death is obvious, but with mortgage it is not so apparent.

In the word mortgage, the mort- is from the Latin word for death and -gage is from the sense of that word meaning a pledge to forfeit something of value if a debt is not repaid. It appears in Old French as gage mort as early as 1267. The form mort gage appears in Old French by 1283 and mortgage made its way into Anglo-Norman. Use in English dates to1390, when it appears in John Gower’s Confessio Amantis:

In mariage His trouthe plight lith in morgage.
(In marriage, His troth plight lies in mortgage.)

So mortgage is literally a dead pledge. It was dead for two reasons, the property was forfeit or “dead” to the borrower if the loan were not repaid and the pledge itself was dead if the loan was repaid. In the words of the 17th century English jurist (and apparently etymologist) Edward Coke in his 1628 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.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 3rd Edition)

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