- n. A special form of secured loan where the purpose of the loan must be specified to the lender, to purchase assets that must be fixed (not movable) property such as a house or piece of farm land. The assets are registered as the legal property of the borrower but the lender can seize them and dispose of them if they are not satisfied with the manner in which the repayment of the loan is conducted by the borrower. Once the loan is fully repaid, the lender loses this right of seizure and the assets are then deemed to be unencumbered.
With all the national hullabaloo lately about America’s economy going down the shitter, Wall Street brokers rending their garments and gnashing their teeth, and the term “subprime mortgage” acquiring an opprobrium usually reserved for choice monosyllables with a surplus of dentals and velar plosives1. But “mortgage” has been one of those words that is surprisingly unknown in an etymological sense.
Old French morgage, from mort gaige, literally means “dead pledge.” Mort is easy enough, traced back to the Latin mori, “to die.” Gage is a slightly less obvious root that came to Old French through Frankish from P.Gmc. *wadiare2. This is the same transformation which produced our modern “wage,” which is literally a pledge to pay (a salary).
Our English “pledge,” however, is from an entirely different origin. It’s from the 14th-century plege, meaning a “surety” or “bail,” once again from Frankish (*plegan) and ultimately from Germanic. It had early connotations of a promise made by drinking, though ironically it later became (“The Pledge”) a term of Temperance.