house money LEAD

By Joel Dresang

We associate the clause “till death do us part” with a marriage vow. Etymologically, though, it should be part of a mortgage.

The word “mortgage” literally means “dead pledge.” It’s a Middle English word derived from the Old French morgage, which combines two words:

  • A gage is a security, something pledged to make sure an obligation is fulfilled.
  • Mort comes from the Latin word for death. It’s related to the words mortal and mortuary and the unspeakable name of Harry Potter’s nemesis. A mort is also the note played on a hunter’s horn to signal that the game is over.

Together then, the word forms a pledge tied to death. The idea was that if you gave your house as collateral for a loan, the lender would take possession of it upon your death. If, however, you were able to pay off the debt, you would snuff the lender’s claim to your property.

Although the word has origins in 14th century French language, the practice of pledging one’s property for loans dates back to the legal system of ancient Rome, according to an article on the history of mortgages in an 1856 law journal from the University of Pennsylvania.

For What It’s Worth is an occasional look at the meanings and origins of words and expressions investors may encounter.

“They were not a subject for invention, but followed as a necessity in the wake of civilization,” the article explained. “The fluctuations of trade, the necessity of credit, and the consequent sudden demand for money in a moment of great commercial embarrassment would naturally suggest the idea of a mortgage as the most facile means of raising it, at the same time affording to the lender a perfect security, easy of transfer, which may itself in turn render to him the same service that it did to the original mortgagor.”

In other words, between those wanting to borrow for property and those willing to lend it, mortgages were a marriage of convenience.

Joel Dresang is vice president-communications at Landaas & Company.

Learn more
Mortgage debt in retirement: Worth a talk,
by Joel Dresang
Retiring debt in time for retirement, a Money Talk Video with Dave Sandstrom
Your housing plan, by Brian Kilb
Putting housing in its place, by Joel Dresang
(initially posted July 2, 2020)

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