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shameless pleading





Borrow / Lend

Gopher broke, can I borrow yours?

Dear Word Detective:  As a youngster in Minneapolis, I used to hear my classmates use “borrow” to mean “lend,” as in “I borrowed him five bucks and he hasn’t paid me back.” I had always written this off as the usage of children, but within the last two or three years I have heard it so used by adults on the “Judge Judy” program. And the curious thing is (cue the “Twilight Zone” music), whenever I have been able to note the origins of said persons, they have always been from Minnesota. Is this actually a gopherism that I missed out on by moving away before the age of 25? — Charles Anderson.

Judge Judy. That is all. Actually, I just realized that not only have I never watched Judge Judy, but I’ve been confusing her with Dr. Laura, whom I have also never watched (possibly because, as Wikipedia just pointed out, she’s a radio host). I also tend to confuse Sanjay Gupta with Doctor Oz. I probably just need to sit closer to the TV. Anyway, my impression of Judge Judy and her penitents is wholly based on clicking past her show on my way to the digital sub-channel that shows old sitcoms around here. (Mister Ed rules!) But there seems to be a whole slew of apparently fungible kangaroo court shows on the upper broadcast channels in the afternoon, and I’ve always wondered how people pick a favorite. Maybe they just go with the one their nephew was on.

I’ve never been to Minnesota, but I would have made more of an effort if I’d realized you guys worship gophers. Awesome. Here in Ohio the people call each other Buckeyes, which is a type of tree nut. No comment. People in Ohio say some strange things, but so far I haven’t noticed anything quite on the level of using “borrow” to mean “lend.” Maybe there’s something in those 10,000 lakes.

At first glance, there’s something profoundly disturbing about reversing the meaning of “borrow,” much more jarring than, say, using “literally” as an emphatic modifier of a figurative statement (“I opened the gas bill and literally had a heart attack”). Shakespeare’s advice in Hamlet, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry,” kinda loses its point if you don’t observe the difference between the words.

Then again, this “borrow/lend” business has a history of confusion. The curious thing about the word “borrow” is that it originally meant something close to “lend.” A “borrow” (the now-obsolete noun, from Germanic roots meaning “to protect”) in Old English was a thing given as security or a guarantee, and “to borrow” was to take something of value as security for a loan, as pawnshops do today. The senses reversed early on in English, with the emphasis of “borrow” shifting to the “thing” taken as collateral, and eventually “to borrow” came to mean to take something belonging to someone else with a pledge, not necessarily involving money, that it would be returned in the future.

Elsewhere in the mix, “loan” and “lend” both come from the Old Norse “lan,” which meant “to let have.” Interestingly, as a verb, “to loan” is largely confined to the US; if you’re broke in London you’ll be looking for someone to “lend” you money.

Semantically, “borrow” and “lend” are a matched pair, like “come” and “go,” and “here” and “there,” two sides of the same conceptual coin. Some languages, in fact use one word to mean both actions and let context indicate the meaning (as some languages use one word to mean both “teach” and “learn”). The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) notes that the non-standard use of “borrow” to mean “to lend” is “scattered” across the US, but especially found west of the Great Lakes, i.e., in Gopherland. DARE also notes that this usage is found “especially among young speakers and speakers with [only] grade school educations.” This usage, however, is far from new; the first citation in DARE is from New York State in 1896, and “Will you borry me some sugar?” was noted in Kentucky in 1917.

So using “borrow” to mean “lend” is simply a dialectical variation, strongly centered in Minnesota. I’m sure that even as we speak there are people out there ranting against this deviant usage as a harbinger of the lang-pocalypse and the consequent death of civilization, but I can’t get terribly cranked up about it. It’s not like the government got confused about “borrow” and “lend” and started giving trillions of dollars to big banks.

7 comments to Borrow / Lend

  • My native tongue, Hebrew – which works on the root system, where [mostly] 3-consonant roots are fitted into various ‘molds’ (I’m sure there’s a more professional way to describe this, but I’m not familiar enough with the terminology) – has the same root for borrowing and lending, in two different verb molds. Oddly enough (or perhaps not so oddly?), the same kind of confusion happens here, too, with people using the ‘borrow’ verb form instead of the ‘lend’ one.

  • Ben Wrankle

    In Viennese German (at least, which is the sort I’m most familiar with), the words “borgen” (borrow) and “leihen” (lend) are sometimes confused. As I think of it, though, it seems something that happens mostly among children there as well.

  • gilly-yo

    Well, I don’t think this is the first sign of a langpocalypse…and I won’t get worked up about it because I have to agree with the education-level point made in DARE. Unfortunately perhaps for some regional purists, if I heard someone confound (the widely-accepted usage of) “borrow” with “lend” (or “teach” with “learn,” which I have also heard), I would make serious assumptions (right or not) about his level of education (and assume it to be little). Unless it was a hipster trying to be ironic. Then I would just assume he was kind of an ass.

  • Simon

    This reversal is also common next door in Wisconsin, but discouraged. I remember well my school teachers harping on classmates when they would ask things like “Could you borrow me a pencil?”

    Many in my rural area never outgrew the habit, though.

  • Jean

    I moved to Minnesota (St. Paul, not rural) in 1989. I was confused when I first heard borrow used in place of loan or lend. Then I heard it, again and again. It always came from the people who grew up in Minnesota. The transplants from other states never used borrow/lend/loan in this way. “Can I borrow a pencil?” sounds correct to me, but “Can you borrow me a pencil?” grated on me! No matter what I said, the people who use this phrase felt they were right and were not interested in changing their ways. You betcha I tried though!

  • Mike H

    The word for borrow and lend in Norwegian (lane with the circle over the a)is the same and since Danish and Swedish are similar I think it got carried over from the settlers.Just like people always say ‘come with’ or ‘go with’ seems to have been carried over by the German influence.I moved to Minnesota from Michigan in 1995 and grew up in Ohio.

  • Jo Lee Penny

    I remember that in early elementary grades we were given grammar tests with choices of borrow/lend, taught/learned, and so on. At that time I didn’t know anyone who confused either of those choices and so assumed that they were put there just to make the tests easier. Since then, though, I’ve discovered the Judge Judy people.

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