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Mortgage and Other 'Death' Words


Most homeowners in the U.S. know that they will need a mortgage, or loan, to buy a house. What many probably don't know is that "mortgage" is French for "death pledge."

Most homeowners in the U.S. know that they will need a mortgage, or loan, to buy a house. What many probably don't know is that "mortgage" is French for "death pledge."


Now, the VOA Learning English program Words and Their Stories.

Part of the “American Dream” is to own a home. Many Americans borrow money when they buy a home. They use a mortgage loan, known simply as a mortgage, to help pay for the property. To get the money, the buyer signs an agreement with a bank or loan company. The borrower promises to pay back the money, plus interest, over a period of years.

The word “mortgage” comes from two Old French words. Mort means dead and gage means to promise or pledge. Combine the two terms and you get “death pledge.” Perhaps this deadly sounding name is why many people are afraid to buy a house, and choose to rent one instead. Because of the word’s French roots, we do not pronounce the letter “t” in mortgage.

The second half of the word, gage, is part of another useful word - engage. Engage has many meanings.

You can enter into battle with, or engage, your enemy. You can engage, or ask, someone to work for you. If you are engaged in a business, you’ve been taking part in it or doing it.

To engage also means to hold someone’s attention. If you have an engaging speaking style, you can hold the attention of others -- or engage them -- for a long time.

An engagement can be a single promise to be some place at a given time. For example, “He has an engagement this evening and won’t be able to make it.” Or an engagement can be a serious promise to marry someone. You can say, “The couple got engaged two years ago, which makes it a really long engagement!"

But let’s leave the happy thoughts of marriage and get back to death. The French term “mort” gives a deathly meaning to other English words – words like mortal, mortality, mortician and mortuary.

As a noun, mortal means a human being. But as an adjective, mortal means something or someone is subject to death. All mortal creatures will die. Mortal can also describe something or someone belonging to this world.

Many religious people believe that when we die, we simply leave our mortal life -- or life on this world -- for an afterlife. Something that does not die is immortal. Clergymen or other religious leaders often pray for a person’s “immortal soul.”

Mortal can also be used for something or someone with the ability to cause death. For example, someone who is your mortal enemy may want to kill you or they just may never give up in the fight against you. In battle, if you suffer a mortal wound, you are likely to die from it. Mortal combat means a fight to the death. These three are all common word combinations using the word “mortal.”

On the lighter side is the word “mortified.” When you are mortified, you feel so embarrassed or foolish that you want to die -- but not really. We often use mortified in situations that are not very serious.

Being a mortician, however, can be serious business. A mortician prepares dead people for burial. They also can help plan and organize funerals. The word mortician is a combination of mortuary, a place in which dead bodies are kept, and the suffix –ician, as in physician.

And that’s Words and Their Stories from VOA Learning English.

I’m Anna Matteo.

Do you have a mortgage on your home? Have you even felt mortified? Do you think about your mortality? Do share in the Comments Section.

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Special Dialogue!

Now let’s hear how these "death" words are actually used. Here's the set-up: two friends meet at an outdoor cafe to talk about their plans for the evening. But one friend just can't stop talking about death!

A: I have big news.

B: Joe asked you to marry him?

A: No! And don’t joke like that in front of him when we go out tonight. He would be mortified!

B: Oh, nobody has ever died from embarrassment. Ha … mortified … that’s kind of funny you used that word.

A: Why?

B: Well, his father is a mortician. You know -- a person who takes care of dead bodies.

A: I know what a mortician does. I just don’t want to talk about it over coffee.

B: What if his father wants him to go into the family business? You’ll have to talk about death and bodies and mortality all the time.

A: You say the worst things.

B: You know, being married to a mortician won’t be that bad. Morticians make good money. You two won’t have any trouble paying your “death pledge.”

A: Our what?

B: Death pledge. You know…a mortgage on a house.

A: Alright, that’s it. I’m changing the subject. What movie do you want to see tonight?

B: Hmm … let’s go see that new thriller, Mortuary. It’s about a family who moves into an old funeral home. The building is supposed to be haunted with evil spirits.

A: That’s it! I’m choosing the movie. Oh, and by the way, I didn’t tell you earlier because I was afraid you’d say “no,” but...

B: But what?

A: Well, tonight is a double-date. I invited Joe’s brother to be your date.

B: Is he nice?

A: Oh, yeah! He’s nice and tall. You two have a lot in common. He likes to make jokes, too.

B: What’s his name?

A: Morty.

B: Because you just can’t make this stuff up. As they say, “truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.”

Words in This Dialogue

thriller n. a novel, play, or movie with an exciting plot, often involving crime or spies

double-date n. a social event in which two people interested in each other go out with another couple; v. to take part in a double date

because you just can’t make this stuff upjoke/slang: a common expression when the truth is stranger and more interesting than make-believe

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