Word Smith: Mortgage


Even after the “mortgage meltdown” of the past decade (2008-2012) and the searing debt lessons of the overheated real estate market, memories are short. Add to that the Alan Greenspan fed “irrational exuberance” of the markets in general, and it seems strange that curious students still find the spelling of the word mortgage a stumbling block. Perhaps a walk back into the origins of the word can help all of us remember how it is spelled and why it might be spelled that way.


Origins in Old French and Middle English


The word mortgage has several believed roots: Old French and Middle English. The Middle English version goes back to the 1300’s where the written word “morgage” (without the letter T) was used in the period. It referred to a pledge between two parties. Later in the 17th century, Sir Edward Coke, a jurist who lived from 1552 to 1634, explained that the word included the letter T. Mortgage, surmised Coke, comes from the Old French words mort, meaning ‘dead,’ and gage, meaning ‘pledge.’ [1]


Sir Edward Coke’s explanation seems to have three elements: 1) the borrower, 2) the lender, and 3) the property. [For some reason he left out the broker and the shark, who always seem to be lurking around the real estate transactions these days.] In his explanation Sir Edward included doubt as to whether the mortgagor will pay the debt or not. He acknowledged the pledge to hold the property as collateral; and the right of the mortgagee to “kill the debt” with payment in full. Coke said that the land “is taken from him for ever, and so dead to him upon condition, &c. And if he doth pay the money, then the pledge is dead as to the [mortgagee].” [2] All of the deaths notwithstanding, the reference to the French makes sense. The Romance languages all come from Latin, and the word for dead is mortuus. Hence the appropriateness of the “t” in the word.

picture-4finalVarious Players in the Mortgage Markets


The word mortgage is a noun:

“I owe the bank $100,000 for the mortgage.”

A verb: “Harry mortgaged his inheritance on that beach property.”

And an adjective: “That valuable piece of property is mortgageable in any market.”  

[1] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

[2] Ibid.

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