Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.
Very few words in the English language contain the consonant cluster –rtg-, and in only one of those words (and its derivatives) is the t silent: mortgage. How did that silent t get in there?
Let’s start at the end of the word. Gage is a Middle English word meaning “pledge,” and especially a pledge to do battle. In tales of knights and chivalry, we often find it used in conjunction with a gauntlet, or armored glove, being thrown down as a pledge to fight someone. In fact, gage is sometimes used to mean both the glove and the pledge that the glove represents.
At the beginning of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of King Richard II, we find Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Hereford and Lancaster, and Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, standing before the king accusing one another of treason. After Mowbray’s show of bravado, Bolingbroke says,
“Pale trembling coward, there I throw my gage, …”
Bolingbroke is challenging Mowbray to a duel by throwing down his glove, and if Mowbray picks it up, it signifies his pledge (gage) to fight Bolingbroke.
Considering a mortgage as a type of pledge makes perfect sense — you’re pledging to pay back your loan over time. But what kind of a gage is a mortgage?
The mort-, believe it or not, comes from the Latin mortuus, “dead” — the same root that gives us the words mortuary, mortal, and post mortem.
Etymologically then, a mortgage is a “dead pledge” — not because you’ll be paying on it until you die, but because the pledge “dies” either when a payment is not met or all payments are made.
Keep that in mind the next time you refinance your home loan.