In History, Sport, Words

Those of you who were paying attention three weeks ago will recall that I was banging on about words that are commonly misspelt (‘that’ being the chief example), and I happened to allude to ‘gauge’ as one of those words that often trips people up. That pesky ‘u’ just never seems to sit in the right place, does it?

So this week I’ve taken the easy way out and plumped for a form of gage that doesn’t bother with such things as silent ‘u’s.

I’m talking, of course, about the word ‘gage’.

I was chatting to a solicitor friend of mine (I like to drop that in from time to time just to keep my enemies on their toes) and he suggested that I make ‘mortgage’ the Word of the Week, racy little devil that he is. He then proceeded to expound his theory on the origins of the word ‘mortgage’ and the conversation took an instant turn for the intriguing.

The ‘mort’ bit is obviously from the French for ‘dead’, as in ‘mortal’ (subject to death), ‘mortician’ (someone who works with the dead, not to be confused with ‘Mourinho’, which currently has a similar meaning), and ‘Morden’ (where tube trains go to die). The ‘gage’ bit was altogether more obscure.

To shine the necessary light onto this old word we have to take ourselves back, once again, to the Middle Ages (blimey, we might as well buy a house there!), when England was a land ravaged by fragrant French nobles with a strong sense of chivalry and a taste for the histrionic. For them the glove or gauntlet was symbolic of a pledge. If you wanted to promise a fellow noble that you could be trusted to escort their wife to Dover without trying to pick the lock of her chastity belt, you would remove your glove, fold it and hand it to him.

This was known as a ‘gage’ and the word was used, incidentally, as an alternative to the Old English ‘wed’, from which we get ‘wedding’. It’s why you get ‘engaged’ to be married. Or become ‘engaged’ in battle.

Or both at the same time, in some cases.

For the ‘gage’ was also used as a symbol of a challenge, and evolved into the word ‘wage’, which explains the link between waging war and picking up your wages. The aggressor would, quite literally, throw down the gauntlet and the recipient would, just as literally, take it up. That’s assuming they wanted to accept the challenge. If they didn’t fancy it they could just cock their nose in the air, mutter “Nah, je ne le fanci pas,” turn on their heel and flounce off to hold their manhoods cheap.

So a mortgage was a ‘dead pledge’, which suggests you were expected to either pay your instalments on time or die. In fact, it wasn’t quite as intimidating as modern mortgage lenders would have it. The ‘dead’ bit actually referred to the fact that the pledge died on repayment, or on repossession of the property. All a bit disappointing really.

But not half as disappointing as the origin of the name ‘greengage’, which has nothing at all to do with chain mail gloves or French duellists. The plum-like fruit is called a greengage because it’s green and it was introduced to England by a bloke called Gage. Nothing more romantic than that, I’m afraid.

That said, the French name for it is ‘Reine Claude’, in honour of the 16th century Duchess of Brittany, who became the Queen Consort of King Francis I of France after a particularly choppy crossing from Dover.

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