Thursday, October 14, 2021

Language Of Confusion: Mortal Thoughts, Redux, Part I

Way back during the first Halloween I decided to etymologize words related to mortality because it felt vaguely Halloween related. And now I’m doing it again.
Mortal showed up in the late fourteenth century, meaning deadly or destructive to life, coming from the Old French mortel and classical Latin mortalis, which is just mortal. It’s from the Proto Indo European root mer-, to rub away or harm, the origin of a bunch of other words, some of which are related to death, some of which are not. That’s the reason this is going to be multiple parts. There are some weird ones in here we definitely need to look at.
Mortify showed up in the late fourteenth century as mortifien, to kill or destroy the life of. Yeah. In the fifteenth century, it took on a religious sense of “subdue the flesh by abstinence and discipline” (yikes), and then by the seventeenth century it started to mean humiliate. Which… I can kind of see that evolution. Anyway, it comes from the Late Latin mortificare, put to death, from the classical Latin mors, death, and that’s from mer-. Mortify—embarrassed to death!
Morbid showed up in the mid seventeenth century meaning the nature of a disease, then referring to mental states in the mid nineteenth century. It comes from the classical Latin morbus, disease, and that is thought to be from mori, to die, which is from mer-.
Murder is unsurprisingly old, having shown up in the fourteenth century. It comes from the Old English morรพor, great sin or crime. That’s from the Proto Germanic murthran, which is from mer-, meaning murder came to English through its Germanic family instead of its Latin one. How appropriate.
Now we’re going to look at a word that I didn’t do last time, probably out of laziness. Mortuary showed up in the late fourteenth century, but back then it meant a gift to a minister on the death of a parishioner. It then meant a funeral service in the mid fifteenth century, and then by 1865 a place where the dead were kept, because that was fancier than what they used to call it: deadhouse. Mortuary comes to us from the Anglo French mortuarie, Medieval Latin mortuarium, from the Late Latin mortuaries, and classical Latin mortuus, dead, and that’s from mori, which is from mer-. Seriously, they paid the minister? I mean, I get it if it’s to pay for the funeral. They’re not just giving the priest money because someone died, right?
Finally today, the word I’m sure you’ll all be thrilled to see: mortgage. It showed up in the late fourteenth century, although back then it was just morgage because we never pronounce the T anyway. It’s from the Old French mortgage, which literally meant “dead pledge”. The mort- is from mori, while the -gage is from wage. Never has a word felt more accurate.
Online Etymology Dictionary
Google Translate
University of Texas at Austin Linguistic Research Center
University of Texas at San Antonio’s page on Proto Indo European language
Tony Jebson’s page on the Origins of Old English
Old English-English Dictionary
Dictionary of Medieval Latin
Orbis Latinus


  1. What means "death by sneezing," because I'm sure that's how I'm going to die.
    Which was only reiterated by the sneezing attack I got halfway through your post.

  2. I rather like deadhouse. We should bring that back.


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