Why Is Your Mortgage a ‘Dead Pledge’?

Did you know that the word ‘mortgage’ comes from the Old French term for ‘dead pledge’? Sounds ominous, doesn’t it? Don’t worry – your house isn’t haunted, but there’s a fascinating historical and linguistic journey behind the name.

A friend recently celebrated refinancing her mortgage. Amidst the excitement, she asked a question that stopped me in my tracks: “Does the ‘mort-‘ part of ‘mortgage’ mean ‘dead’? If so, why?”

Well, a trip down the rabbit hole (or should we say, a scroll through the Oxford English Dictionary) ensued. The OED defines the word ‘mortgage’ as a fusion of Anglo-Norman and Middle French words: ‘mort gage,’ which does indeed translate to ‘dead pledge.’ This term can be traced back to the post-classical Latin ‘mortuum vadium,’ which maintains the same ‘dead pledge’ sentiment.

But the plot thickens: why ‘dead pledge’?

As it turns out, the term ‘mortgage’ has its roots in early Anglo-Norman law. When property was pledged as security for a loan, the creditor would hold onto it until the debt was repaid. The profits generated from this property could either reduce the principal or be pocketed by the creditor as a form of interest.

In his “Tractatus de legibus et consuetudinibus regni Angliae” (1189), Ranulf de Glanville explains that a pledge where the profits went straight into the creditor’s pocket, without reducing the debt, was known as a ‘mort gage,’ or ‘dead pledge.’ This type of arrangement was frowned upon due to Christian prohibitions against profiting from money lending, so the mortgage was considered usurious.

The more acceptable type of pledge was the ‘vif gage,’ or ‘living pledge,’ where the property’s profits went towards paying off the debt and continued to benefit the borrower.

Fast-forward to the time of the English jurist Thomas Littleton’s “Treatise on Tenures” (1481), the mortgage had morphed into what we recognize today – a conditional pledge where the property (and its profits) stay with the debtor during the loan’s repayment. This led Littleton and his followers, like the influential jurist Sir Edward Coke (1552-1634), to interpret the ‘mort’ in mortgage as a reference to the permanent loss of the property if the borrower fails to repay.

So, there you have it. The word ‘mortgage’ might seem a bit macabre, but it’s just a linguistic echo from a time when pledging your property was literally a ‘do or die’ situation. Next time you make a payment, give a nod to Ranulf de Glanville and Thomas Littleton, who probably never thought their old legal terms would be part of our everyday language!

Share this post with your friends and help them appreciate the fascinating history that’s sitting in their monthly bills. Who knew mortgages could be so… lively?

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