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TWTS: Mortgage, death pledge - it's all the same

In honor of tax season, Merriam Webster recently tweeted the origins of “mortgage.” It’s derived from two Old French words meaning “death” and “pledge.”

Though "death pledge" probably sounds about right to some of you, others might be wondering how "mortgage" ended up  with such a dark origin story.

As many of you know, a “mortgage” is a loan for the purchase of property. The loan is secured by a lien on the property. There are two potential explanations for its dark origins and, perhaps not surprisingly, both involve different things dying, getting lost, or becoming void.

One explanation is that the debt dies or becomes void when you pay off the pledge – i.e. the loan you “pledged” to repay.  You pay off your mortgage and the debt dies. The other explanation is that the property on which you’ve put the mortgage is lost or dies if you fail to repay the loan.

“Mortgage” came into English from Old French in the 1300s. It starts off with the more general meaning of any arrangement where a benefit is gained at the expense of agreeing to a constraint. The legal meaning of “mortgage” that we're familiar with today shows up by 1450.

That means "mortgage" as we know it has been around for centuries. Incidentally, that's about how long it takes to pay one off.

This week we also talked discussed the uplifiting topic of “guilty of all charges” vs. “guilty on all charges.” To hear it, listen to the audio above. 

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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