What is the meaning of “Pawn” vs. “Hock”?

The word pawn goes back centuries, as does the practice of pawning, itself. There are similar words, like hock and pledge. And when we examine how the terms relate, they weave together as strands in a fascinating story.

To begin with, what is the difference between the definitions of “Pawn” and “Hock”?” Well, outside of pawning, there is a lot of difference, with pawn representing a piece in a chess game, and hock representing a piece of meat. However, as verbs they are a match: according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, if you want to pawn something, you could also say you want to hock it. And to this list of related terms we can add pledge: all three mean to put a possession up as security for a loan.  For example:

“He pawned his watch to get a cash loan.”

“Pop’s house was in hock to the bank.”

“Queen Isabella pledged her jewelry to provide financing for the voyage of Christopher Columbus.”

“Pawn” and “Hock”  are so interchangeable that the compound noun hockshop is synonymous with pawnshop. What’s more, hocker is synonymous with pawner. As to their history (or etymology) Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary traces the first known use of hockshop to 1871.  The second is older, with pawnshop tracing back to 1749. Hock only goes back to 1878, but as for pawn, its use began around 1566.

Although hock , pledge and pawn all have meanings outside of pawning, one meaning  actually suggests a deeper relation. For hock also means prison, owing to the Dutch word hok meaning “pen or prison.” (First known use: 1883.) This may tell us how hock and pawn became linked as verbs. When you pawn an item, it goes into a vault, a little “prison” for your valuables; and when you pay off a pawn, you take it “out of hock,” which is like bailing it out of prison.

And now you know the rest of the story.



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