Mortgages have been much in the news lately, especially for first time home buyers living in Auckland. What better time, then, to investigate the origins of this unusual word.
One of the first things you might notice is the silent 't', which is a big clue about the word's history. It comes from the Old French morgage, which is a portmanteau word derived from mort (dead) and gaige (pledge).
Why is "dead" in there? Because with a mortgage, the deal dies once when the debt is paid (or if the borrower fails to make payment, and we all know what happens then). The English, in a rare display of concern for the French language, reintroduced the 't' when they borrowed the word from their neighbours.
Mort is found in a handful of English words such as mortal, mortuary and mortician. One word that you might think owes its existence to mort but doesn't is morgue. That word comes from a building in Paris that was used to display bodies hauled from the Seine so their nearest and dearest could identify them. It comes from the Old French morguer, "look solemnly", which is one thing that dead people can be counted on to do. So too, one imagines, could those wandering the Morgue searching for their missing, dimwitted cousin, last seen wading into the Seine shouting "see, told you the current wasn't very strong here."