Sunday, June 21, 2009

Death And Taxes: The Language Behind Mortgages And Amortize

It is interesting to look at real estate and see the etymology behind the words we use so casually today. Two of these are “mortgage” and “amortize”, words that are based on medieval Romance language terms for death. Why death? And why, when we are speaking English, are we using a term based on Old French? The answer can be traced back over a period of a thousand years.

The “mort” of “mortgage” and “amortize” is derived from Latin via Old French. “Mori”, Old Latin for ‘to die’, became “mort” in Old French and travelled in that form to the present-day usage in modern English words. The Norman conquest of England in 1066 brought a large number of French loan words from Anglo-Norman, which displaced Old English as the language of the upper class. Nearly 1000 years later, we still use the language forms introduced to the British Isles by an ancient conqueror.

The term “mortgage” appears as “gage mort” in Old French in 1267, but by 1283, the terms were reversed. In 1390, “mortgage” as one word appears in written English text. The “gage” in mortgage comes from a term referring to a forfeit if a debt is not paid. As a homeowner today can be levied fines, lose a good credit rating or have to declare bankruptcy if unable to meet mortgage payments, this is still an appropriate reference today! “Mortgage”, then, means “dead pledge”. If the mortgage loan is defaulted on, the property is “dead” to the borrower. If the loan is paid in full, the pledge to repay it was “dead”.

“Amortize” also comes from the root word of “mort”. In this case, the term refers more to the action of effecting death. 1375 saw Middle English use the term “amortisen”, literally “to kill”, “die”. What people are doing by paying off a mortgage loan is “killing” the loan and the interest by steady application of payments calculated to pay off both in a set number of years. Upon the “death” of the loan, the debt to the lender was reckoned “dead” and had no power to exert influence on the living, in this case, the lucky medieval person who managed to avoid death long enough to become a property owner outright.

While today’s real estate speculator might think that this mode of thought was somewhat morbid, one must remember that the generally abysmal state of health care of the medieval period and you had societies where death was a lot more up close and personal than it is for today’s Western world. The Black Death had peaked in Europe in the mid 1300s, when the first references to “mort” as something to do with real estate emerged on paper. The culture of a conquering and a conquered people also makes this usage appropriate; often winning and losing was as simple as living and dying.

Owning or having the rights to use land was what kept a person alive. The loss or despoilage of it meant the death of the former owner or tenant was a very real possibility. Land was and still is power - whoever controlled it had the best chance of living; whoever lost it was cut off from the one tool that furnished them with the resources to survive. There was no welfare or walk-in clinics; there was only land and property. So, in a very real sense, the "death" of a mortgage meant life for the person who was responsible for it. We may have moved on from medieval times, but the language of survival still lurks within the terms that we may think only extends to money.

By: Carolyn Capalbo

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