My wife was celebrating the diminishing amount remaining on our mortgage, and she asked me if the mort- part of the word meant ‘dead,’ and if so why. I said yes it did, but I didn’t know why; I’ve looked it up a number of times because it’s so opaque, but I can never remember the answer. So I turned to the OED, which updated the entry in December 2002, but the etymology is surprisingly unsatisfactory from the semantic point of view:

< Anglo-Norman and Middle French mortgage, mort gage (1283 in Old French; also as gage mort (1267); French mort-gage (now archaic)) < mort mort adj. + gage gage n.¹, after post-classical Latin mortuum vadium (from 12th cent. in British sources) < mortuum, accusative of mortuus dead (see mort adj.) + vadium pledge (see invadiate v.). Middle French mort gage > post-classical Latin morgagium (from 14th cent. in British sources), mortgagium (a1564 in a British source).

Yes, yes, but why is it called a ‘dead pledge’? (They later quote in small type “the etymological meaning of the term current among 17th-cent. lawyers,” but they clearly consider that merely a historical curiosity.) Fortunately, the AHD comes to the rescue:

Word History: In early Anglo-Norman law, property pledged as security for a loan was normally held by the creditor until the debt was repaid. Under this arrangement, the profits or benefits that accrued to the holder of the property could either be applied to the discharge of the principal or taken by the creditor as a form of interest. In his Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus regni Angliae (1189), Ranulf de Glanville explains that this latter type of pledge, in which the fruits of the property were taken by the creditor without reduction in the debt, was known by the term mort gage, which in Old French means “dead pledge.” Because of Christian prohibitions on profiting from money lending, however, the mortgage was considered a species of usury. The preferred type of pledge, in which the property’s profits went to paying off the debt and thus continued to benefit the borrower, was known in Old French by the term vif gage, “living pledge.” By the time of the great English jurist Thomas Littleton’s Treatise on Tenures (1481), however, the mortgage had evolved into its modern form—a conditional pledge in which the property (and its profits) remain in possession of the debtor during the loan’s repayment. This led Littleton and his followers, such as the influential jurist Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), to explain the mort in mortgage in terms of the permanent loss of the property in the event the borrower fails to repay, rather than of the loss of the profits from the property over the duration of the loan.

I certainly won’t remember the details, but at least I can now refer to this entry when curiosity strikes again.


  1. accusative of mortuus ? In mortuum vadium it’s clearly the neuter nominative. Apparently, a knowledge of the basics of Latin grammar is no longer required for those responsible for OED etymologies. Btw, the Revised Medieal Latin Word List from Briish and Irish Sources lists mortuum vadium (first attested c. 1185) as a variant spelling of morgagium.(first attested c. 1365).

  2. See Wordorigins for discussion of the earliest known use of mortgage in English, in Confessio Amantis, and its context.

    Gage is a doublet of wage; does this mean that the mort gage was invented in Central French, rather than Norman French?

  3. See Wordorigins for discussion of the earliest known use of mortgage in English, in Confessio Amantis, and its context.

    Thanks, I should have thought to check the Big List. But Dave seems to accept the later, and apparently unhistorical, explanation of “dead.”

  4. the great English … such as the influential… – I thought such epithets that look like a classification are a Russo-Soviet thing…

    P.S. Великий русский писатель Лев Николаич Толстой не ел ни рыбы ни мяса, ходил по деревне босой. Жена его Софья Андреевна, напротив, любила поесть. Она не ходила босая, спасая фамильную честь.

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    I thought such epithets that look like a classification are a Russo-Soviet thing…

    By no means. Journalists, in particular are very fond of such constructions, as they allow you to give the more ignorant reader a clue about who you’re talking about without making it so ponderous as to annoy those of your readers who already know all about them, thank you very much. The definite article is important here, as it modestly implies that the information is shared common knowledge already, and so the epithet is a mere reminder. (“Oh, you mean that William Shakespeare: the celebrated playwright. Gotcha!”)

    (To be slightly fairer, it’s a journalistic axiom that, no matter how familiar something may seem to you, some reader is going to be learning about it for the first time from your article.)

    The construction is to be sharply distinguished from an indefinite epithet placed after the noun, as in the Economist‘s recent, “Nadine Dorries, a cabinet toady, said …”

  6. In Russian Tolstoy or Pushkin are “great”.

    You can of course write “Tolstoy, [the/a] celebrated…” but it already sounds playful, and definiteness remains undeceded.

  7. The definite article is important here, as it modestly implies that the information is shared common knowledge already, and so the epithet is a mere reminder.

    I’d never thought of it that way, but yes, that’s it exactly. Bathrobe also once discussed this journalistic “the” in a comment (slightly reformatted):

    While it may have started out as “elegant variation”, journalism has developed the practice into a handy device for cramming background information into articles. For example, an article will start out by talking about “Mongolia”. Later it might be referred to as the landlocked Asian nation, the former Soviet satellite or the cash-strapped economy. The intent is clearly to bring people who only have a foggy notion about Mongolia rapidly up to speed without inserting long or distracting background explanations.

    I suspect the English stylistic device owes quite a debt to syntax. Without the definite article, one wonders whether English would ever have developed this to the extent that it has. It tends to read very badly when translated into, say, Chinese, where it gives the impression that a new topic of conversation has suddenly been been introduced when in fact it’s the same topic expressed a little differently.

  8. It is common in Russian and I never find it confusing despite the absence of the article.

    In fiction as well (…. … David Eddyshow … … . The tired ophtalmologist…. ). Journalists tend to pack new information in this construction. But journalistic Russian is not very different from journalistic European.

  9. There’s an entertaining Twitter devoted to journalistic second mentions

    My experience in the world of journalism suggests that the practice is more about elegant variation than providing additional information – the typical ‘second mention’ assumes that the reader is already familiar with the subject.

  10. There is also “the hungry boy took the apple” where the two facts (of which the first does not have to be new information) are complementary.

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    In Real Life, it’s pretty difficult to imagine an scenario in which the hunger actually was new information. The sentence is actually not really possible as a stand-alone; the boy and the apple must already have been introduced to us, and there must also have been some lead-up to the fact that he’s hungry.

    It’s only the taking of the apple which is new. These are preexisting boys, apples and hungers.

  12. Yes, I mean in this case known information becomes a circumstance of the action (“the tired grammarian closed the book” ~ “closed the book tiredly” [P.S. these two are not the same thing, of course])

  13. ulr: “accusative of mortuus ? In mortuum vadium it’s clearly the neuter nominative.”

    Well spotted. In the famous quotation from Glanville loosely translated by the AHD, “mortuum vadium dicitur illud cujus fructus vel redditus interim percepti in nullo se acquietant”, it is used in the nominative (if I understand correctly).

    The AHD’s description is slightly oversimplified: Glanville was writing in Latin using the Latin term, not the French. The French appears to be a calque of the Latin.

    But major props to the AHD for actually *updating* this history box: in the previous (2000) edition, they gave only Sir Edward Coke’s explanation, although with some qualification (“It seemed to him… This etymology, as understood by 17th-century attorneys … may well be correct”). Somebody did some re-checking!

  14. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    This is a rather fickle question: does the Old French nominative of what was a neuter noun in Latin continue the nominative or the accusative, seeing as they were identical (and IIRC, Old French didn’t actually have a neuter gender)?

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    @Lars: the usual story is that when early Old French’s already-meager two-case system collapsed into one, it was usually (although not invariably) the nominative that went extinct and the oblique (typically derived from the Lat. accusative) that survived. Obviously if the two cases were in fact identical in early OFr for a particular noun, claiming that the oblique is the one that survived is a somewhat unfalsifiable claim, but it still seems the smart way to bet.

    Neuter Latin nouns supposedly mostly became masculine in OFr – but I don’t know if there was any felt need to innovate distinctions between the nom. and acc. that the Latin ancestor had lacked. I think there were some masc. OFr nouns that had been masc. in Latin but where the two cases in OFr had become identical due to phonological change etc., so case could only be specified by case-inflected definite articles.

  16. According to TLFI, if I understand correctly, Old French gage (masculine) is not descended from Medieval Latin vadium (neuter); rather, both were borrowed directly from Frankish. However, there was also a Latin cognate, vas, vadis (m.) ‘bail, surety’, which might have influenced it.

  17. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Thanks, that’s more or less what I thought. But Old French doesn’t actually figure into the claim that Hat objects to, which is that mortuum in “post-classical Latin mortuum vadium” is the accusative of mortuus (the masculine citation form). It can be sort of half saved if mortuum vadium is a direct quote from a source where it is actually used in the accusative, but then it should be noted as such. It is at best severely muddled, as Hat says.

  18. But Old French doesn’t actually figure into the claim that Hat objects to

    That wasn’t me, that was ulr.

  19. Mediae Latinitatis Lexicon Minus (Niermeyer) lists vadium but links it to wadium as the preferred form, and there we find a very long entry that starts like this:

    wadium va- ga- gai- gua- -dia -gium -ddium -tgium
    Grammar: (< got. wadi, “ — pledge — ”,> angl. wed, wage, gage, teuton. Wette, belg. wedde, frg. gage)
    1. An object, which in a symbolic way binds a person or his property (the debtor) who, in consequence of an unlawful act or a contract, has assumed obligations towards the opposite party (the creditor). By handing this object to the creditor, the debtor gives the creditor the right to enforce, in case of non-performance, the fulfilment of the debtor’s obligations, by seizing his person or property. Often the debtor presents a guarantor, to whom the creditor hands the “wadium”, thus conferring upon this guarantor the right, and at the same time the duty, to force the debtor to fulfil his obligations. The wadium is handed back to the debtor after fulfilment of his obligations.
    [Examples follow; then other senses]
    6. 1. spec. mortuum vadium
    mortgage, pledge of which the revenue is collected by the creditor without counting towards repayment of the loan
    Mortuum vadium dicitur illud cujus fructus vel redditus interim percepti in nullo se acquietant. GLANVILL. , lib. 10 c. 6, ed. HALL , p. 121. Cum vero res immobilis ponitur in vadium ita quod inde fuerit facta saisina ipsi creditori et ad terminum, aut ita convenit inter creditorem et debitorem quod exitus et redditus interim se acquietant, aut sic quod in nullo se acquietent. Prima convencio justa est et tenet. Secunda injusta est et inhonesta que dicitur mortuum vadium. Ib., lib. 10 c. 8, p. 124. Propter hoc volunt quod dictum capitulum habeat in pignus et gagium mortuum omne jus quod dicti conjuges habent in decimis bladorum in territorio de la B. usque ad 7 annos. DC.-F., VIII p. 228 col. 3 (s. xii ? Dol).
    [More senses follow, to a total of ten]

    The resource also has these related entries:


  20. That’s great, thanks!

  21. David Marjanović says

    Wette means “bet”, BTW. So TIL that a wedding is a bet…

    *a…i as documented in Gothic confirmed by /e/-as-opposed-to-/ɛ/ in my dialect. This is far from always reliable, so I keep being surprised by how often it is.

    I finally looked up the etymology of bet. It seems to be a doublet of bait through a convoluted path.

  22. Stu Clayton says

    Wette means “bet”, BTW. So TIL that a wedding is a bet…

    Well, they do say “for better or for worse”.

  23. For bettor or for horse.

  24. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    FWIW, Danish uses the verb at vædde = ‘to bet,’ I guess they are cognates. There is also an obsolete noun væd, still alive in væddemål ~ ‘a bet you enter into’. gage in Danish now means ‘salary,’ but the connection is noted in ODS.

    In Swedish, the cognate att vädja means ‘to appeal,’ while ‘to bet’ is att slå vad.

  25. ktschwarz says

    I wrote in to the OED about the “accusative”, and it’s fixed in the March 2023 update: it now reads “mortuum , neuter of mortuus dead”.

  26. That’s good, but they still don’t clarify the semantics — without the contrast to vif gage, it makes no sense.

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