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Monthly Etymology Gleanings for April 2012

By Anatoly Liberman

Is loan a verb? Few questions have been asked with such regularity, and few answers have been so definitive, but people keep asking. Perhaps I might make a short introduction. Since English nouns of native origin have no endings (book, rope, pig, cow, goat) and even old borrowed nouns are often monosyllabic (wall, chair, table, desk, pen, lamp) and since infinitives also lack endings (come, go, see, take), the line separating the two grammatical categories is blurred. Some nouns and verbs had different forms in Old English. Such were love (noun) and love (verb); later they lost their endings and now coexist as homonyms. Other verbs were derived from “ready-made” nouns. The opposite process is less common, but consider the nouns meet, say, and go from the corresponding verbs. In principle, any noun can be converted into a verb. “Do students Professor, Dr., or Mr. us at this university?” “Don’t you uncle me!” The messages are perfectly clear.

Therefore, the question about whether there is such a verb as loan misses the point. Potentially, yes, by definition, because there is no limit to the process of conversion. Don’t we table proposals, chair meetings, and indulge in stonewalling and railroading? The question should be whether English speakers already have the verb loan. Of course, they do, for otherwise so many people would not have been worried about it. A look at the entry loan in the OED shows that this verb has been around since the oldest period (but here the situation is the same as with love: the noun was lean, while the verb was leanian; the two forms became indistinguishable later). Now comes the last question: Should this verb be used by those who care about their English? Usage is capricious. Some words are considered “low class” (I remember reading about the horror caused by singlet “jersey” among the genteel Englishmen in the thirties of the twentieth century). Still others are banished by snobs for the reasons known only to them. Every time a new verb formed from a noun comes into being, it faces resistance. Consider the violent reaction of some to the verb impact. But if a word gains great currency, people stop noticing the offender.

The verb loan, although it was coined in medieval England, is especially common in American English. At least in North America fighting it is pointless. As long as it knows its place, everything is fine. Pictures and money can be loaned, temporarily and even permanently. But things one cannot borrow and return are lent. No one loans a hand or support; loan has not (yet?) acquired figurative senses. Our correspondent writes: “I cringe every time I hear someone say a phrase such as ‘Can I loan your book?’ or ‘The tools that the neighbor loaned me’… It seems like I am the only person around to know of the terms borrow and lend, and I wonder if language evolved and now the use of loan outside finance has become acceptable.” Can I loan your book? makes me cringe too, because the speaker has forgotten the difference between lend and borrow (a common case of amnesia). Nor do I loan tools to my neighbors, but such is the fate of conservative speakers: language development leaves them behind. I never tire of repeating that studying language history is wonderful, but being part of it is disgusting.

Turn up missing. This is another old chestnut. So far, this phrase seems to be restricted to American English. It should be repeated that as soon as great multitudes of speakers adopt a word or a phrase, or a syntactic construction it becomes legitimate. The only advice to those in doubt is: “If you don’t like it, don’t use it.” People wonder how one can turn up and be missing at the same time. Don’t expect logic from language. The old idiom to go missing is hardly more “logical.” Common verbs often degrade into mere auxiliaries. Think of I am going to stay here. If your plan is to stay, where are you going? Go is a typical link verb in he went mad. So is come in when I come to think about it. Turn up “appear” followed the example of come and go. The bad thing is that the phrase turn up missing has joined other grievously overused buzzwords. I have no information on why it happened.

Between you and I. I am sorry to repeat what I have twice said above, but this item is also permanently on the agenda. Between you and I is such obvious nonsense that one wonders how it came into being. Yet the phrase seems to have been around for a long time, for Shakespeare already used it in The Merchant of Venice. None of the explanations of this phrase known to me sounds persuasive. I can only say that the confusion of the nominative and the oblique case of pronouns is common, a phenomenon probably caused by the collapse of cases in nouns and adjectives. A classic example is it’s me. Nor does it’s him (her) sound wrong, though there is a difference. Who is there? It’s me is more idiomatic than It’s I, while it’s he (she) is all right. Even here not everything is crystal clear. It’s I who must do it is not stilted, while it’s me who must do it will irk many. Although the case of who versus whom has been discussed by grammarians for more than a century, who are you talking about? is not only preferable to whom are you talking about? but probably the only way people say it. Viewed from a lofty theoretical watchtower, between you and I follows the old trend; however, despite its use in speech and songs it is rather forbidding. If I were to teach English to foreigners, I would advise them against jumping on the popular bandwagon. (This, by the way, is a useful touchstone for coming to terms with one’s English. Would you recommend a certain construction to a foreigner? In this situation, all of us — should I say all of we? — suddenly become conservative and apologetic.)

Why bless my heart Johnny, you’re welcome! How’s your mother? c1816 Sept. 12. Source: Library of Congress.

You are welcome. I received the question: “What has happened to this answer? Why does everybody now say: ‘No problem’ in answer to ‘Thank you’”? The vogue for no problem seems to be rather recent, but such phrases constantly change. At one time, people said not at all and don’t mention it. The formula if you please also existed, though hardly anyone remembers it. In Minnesota, where I live, an informal answer to thank you used to be you bet! The extra-polite my pleasure was not uncommon either. No problem can be heard so often in all kinds of situations that its encroachment on you are welcome need not cause surprise. However, it is still funny when you thank a waiter (“server”) at a restaurant and the answer is no problem. With the bill paid and a fat tip added, I would think so!

Phrasal verbs. When did away begin to mean what it does in verb adverb collocations like fire away, considering that the initial meaning of away was “out of sight”? Our correspondent wonders whether etymology may provide a clue to his question. I don’t think so. From etymology, if we are lucky, we can learn only a word’s original (that is, the first attested or reconstructed) sense, while here we are dealing with a later process. The history of phrases like fire away and melt away can be traced only from texts or with the help of a historical dictionary like the OED. The main entry will be away, for even the best dictionary can document idioms rather than all instances of a productive type (and the type is productive: hammer away, talk away, and so forth).

Folk etymology? A trusted old correspondent has read the posts on the name of the four seasons and concluded that all the guesses about their origin are akin to folk etymology. I agree. But “scientific” and folk etymology share some common ground. However, a scholar compares forms according to more or less reliable rules, and a “folk etymologist” cannot go beyond look-alikes. For example, when people suggest that winter is related to wind, they turn into folk etymologists (of sorts). However, a critic will note that the consonants don’t match and the etymology is rejected. Alas, etymology is a blend of sound correspondences, semantic verisimilitude, historical evidence, and intelligent guessing. Serendipity and inspiration, as I said in a recent post on the profession of the etymologist, also play an outstanding role in the success of reconstruction. To make matters worse, folk etymology is sometimes correct. Couldn’t winter be a windy season, with an unexplained substitution of t for d? All this is true; yet the origin of hundreds of words has been traced to their real, not fanciful etymons.

Is the connection between (1) ear and hear and (2) eat and meat due to chance? Yes, it is. However, the amazing closeness of ear to hear, with regard to both sound and sense, may be the result of a no longer reconstructable ancient convergence. Eat goes back to an Indo-European root that probably had the same meaning as today. Meat is a cognate of mete (out) “measure, cut” (compare German messen “cut”) and once meant “food” (apparently, a portion given to an eater), as it still does in meat and drink and compounds like sweetmeat. Although eat and food are natural neighbors, the proximity of eat and meat is fortuitous.

Peeves and questions.
(1) Five foods to never eat. Isn’t it a horror? (One of our correspondents remarked that he did not appreciate my picture of split pea soup after a diatribe against the gratuitous splitting of infinitives. I only meant to show that splitting destroys a cohesive whole and produces too many fragments.)
(2) Is there a consensus among our readers that the rule of the sequence of tenses is dead (half-dead) in English (American and British)? “[He] told the Associated Press that eighty of the bodies have been identified….He said a “Martyrs’ Parade” has been planned for those found in the mass grave,” “Not long ago, an astute reader noted that it has been nearly two year since I wrote in a column that…” With the demise of the past perfect (pluperfect) as above, the use of will after said ( “Vice President Joe Biden predicted that the high court will not throw out the Obama administration’s signature agenda item”) and a meaningless would after has said and the like in subordinate clauses (“But studies have shown that those losses eventually would be made up by economic growth in other sectors….”), it seems that the rule, once imposed by grammarians rather than by instinct, has finally been abolished. Good riddance?


Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of blog@oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    A horror? Not at all: it is emphatic. This is one of those cases where you want to get out that desk set someone gave you once, with the gold-plated pen and pencil and the nifty little tomahawk for splitting your infinitives. Five foods never to eat is stilted, Five foods to eat never, un-English. If you want to avoid splitting, you must go to Five foods never to be eaten.

    The sequence of tenses rule is more natural than you suggest, but it runs into problems around modal verbs, because it is only in sequence-of-tense situations that would is the preterite of will: for the most part, would and will are now distinct modals with distinct meanings. However, changing he says he is going into the preterite still demands he said he was going, for he said he is going can refer only to the future, not the future-in-the-past.

  2. Dan

    I’m glad you mentioned split pea soup. (Should “split pea” be hyphenated?) “Pea” is a barbarism, a backformation based on the mistaken idea that “pease” was “peas,” a plural noun. I’ve seen all sorts of complaints from language mavens about acceptance of errors debasing the language–no matter how long ago the usage became mainstream– but never a peep about “pea.”

  3. D. Fear

    Between you and me, I is not a pronoun. Well, I maintain this, because ‘I’ does not really appear in sytagmatic isolation, at least not in most natural varieties of English. The pronoun status was doubtless in fluctuation for some time; now, I feel that ‘I’ always requires a verb. ‘It is I’ strikes me as stilted, to say the least. The situation has a parallel in French, where ‘je’ is clearly not a pronoun, but rather a part of the verb. This seems to be something of a tendency when oblique case forms of the pronoun become more general. ‘All of we’ is definitely not on; ‘of’ still requires an oblique, hence ‘all of us’. This may have strengthened the tendency of the 1 sg pronoun to be used more in the oblique, too. I may add that – in my particular norm – ‘it’s he/she’ does not sound right at all. Doubtless this varies. My prediction is that the tendency to use the oblique will continue.

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