Many people are familiar with the saying "The wages of sin is death," which treats "wages" as singular, but most of the time it's actually plural. Plus, how are your 'wages' related to your 'mortgage' and your 'wedding'?
I often gather and answer listener questions on Twitter, and a couple of months ago, A.L. Wicks asked, “What’s the connection between ‘wage’ and ‘wager'?" I’m answering this question today, in my Super Bowl episode, because I live in Nevada, so I see what a big gambling weekend, a wagering weekend, this is every year.
‘Wage’ and ‘Wager’
“Wage” and “wager” both came into English in the early 1300s from an Old North French word “wage” that means “to pay, pledge, or reward,” and was spelled “gage” in Old French. The words are closely related, your wages being money pledged to you for work you do, and a wager being an amount you pledge when gambling.
A secondary meaning of the verb “wage”—“to carry out something,” like when we talk about “waging war”—developed in the mid-1500s, probably from the idea of pledging yourself to a battle or campaign.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists 'wages' as both singular and plural.
The same root gives us the word “mortgage” with that “gage” spelling at the end from Old French instead of the “wage” spelling. “Mortgage” literally means “dead pledge,” the “mort-” meaning “dead” and coming from the same root that gives us the word “mortal.” The Online Etymology Dictionary says that a mortgage was called a dead pledge because “the deal dies when the debt is paid or when payment fails.”
The “gage” root also gives us the word “engage.” When you engage people in a project, they are pledged to you, and in a more metaphorical sense, when you’re deeply engaged in a book or story or conversation, you are in a sense, pledged to it. Finally, when you become engaged to marry, you’re making a pledge.
In fact, if you go much farther back, to Proto-Germanic languages, “wage” comes from the same root as the verb “wed,” as in “to marry,” because back then, a man would make a pledge, often of money, to take a wife.
So if you’re wagering on the big game this Sunday, don’t go wild and bet your house or your mortgage, and when you look at your spouse and think of your engagement or wedding day, I hope you conclude that getting married was a good bet.
‘Wages’: Singular or Plural?
Before we move on, @BookwormBaby25 coincidentally asked me a different question about the word “wage” while I was writing this piece. The question was whether the word “wages” is singular or plural because it seems plural with that S on the end, but you often hear it used singularly, as in “the wages of sin is death.” In that sense, “the wages” means “the reward” or “the payment.” (In the Corpus of Contemporary American English, I found 9 entries for “wages are” or the equivalent and 15 entries for “wages is” or the equivalent.)
The Oxford English Dictionary has “wages” listed as both singular and plural, as do other dictionaries, and the oldest entries treat it as singular. In fact, the oldest entry is probably that line from the Book of Romans in the Wycliffe Bible—“The wages of sin is death”—or it could be from "Sir Gawain and the Green Knight"—“and fetch for thyself such wages.”
“Means” is a similar word that can be both singular and plural, as in “It was a means to an end” or “By using these means, he could change the outcome.”
In general, when “means” and “wages” have a sense of being one thing, go with the singular, and when they have a sense of being multiple things, go with the plural, and when you’re talking about earnings, it’s almost always plural, as in “Her wages are barely enough to cover her expenses.” The singular form that always calls to mind the example “The wages of sin is death” is essentially a relic of English that exists mostly in this set phrase.
Mignon Fogarty is Grammar Girl and the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips. Check out her New York Times best-seller, “Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.”