I'VE GRUMBLED BEFORE about the tendency of editors, broadcasters, and ombudsmen to roll over and apologize whenever they get a bogus usage complaint -- that gotten is improper, say, or split infinitives wrong -- instead of checking the facts and setting the record straight.
Earlier this month, as I listened to "Marketplace" on public radio, I thought I was about to hear another misguided mea culpa. Host Kai Ryssdal was airing listeners' comments, including one from a man who, said Ryssdal, "caught both host and reporter using the word loan questionably."
"When did the word loan become a verb?" demanded the accuser, James Brown, in the audio clip that followed. "Hundreds of years ago!" I yelled at the radio, but on he droned, insisting that lend was the only acceptable verb and clinching his argument -- so he surely thought -- with the observation that "Shakespeare did not write, 'Friends, Romans, countrymen, loan me your ear.' " (Yes, the caller said "ear," but let it go.)
Then came a pleasant surprise: Instead of an apology, Ryssdal offered a rebuttal. "To cite the Oxford Dictionary of American Style and Usage, Mr. Brown, loan can be a verb when you're talking about money."
Score one for the truth-in-usage campaign. Loan is indeed a good American verb, and not just when you're talking about money. It was once a good English verb, too -- not as old as lend, it's true, but in use since the 16th century, and possibly much earlier.
Loan is not entirely interchangeable with lend; while we can loan books and beach houses, we lend intangibles -- credibility, a festive air, verisimilitude. "Loan me your ears" sounds weird, all right, but it's not because loan isn't a verb; it's because we don't habitually use it in figurative expressions.
Why, then, do so many Americans think of loan as a lower-class verb, a shabby poor relation of the spiffy, unimpeachable lend? The answer, says Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, lies in the tale of two nations and their diverging tastes in usage.
The verb loan, standard in 17th-century England, came to America with the earliest settlers and put down tenacious roots. In the following century, though, it fell out of fashion in Britain, and came to be seen as a country-cousin locution. One 18th-century visitor from England, Thomas Twining, reported that loan was a verb used by "the least cultivated ranks of society."
That English snobbery eventually got under Americans' skin, making some men of letters feel insecure about their "provincial" use of loan. Nobody banned it outright, though, till 1870, when the popular grammarian Richard Grant White pronounced judgment: "Loan is not a verb, but a noun."
Like so many usage dictums, this was founded on an error. Thomas Lounsbury, a later usage maven, showed that White had misinterpreted the etymology, according to Merriam-Webster. But that did not deter the tidy-language faction from embracing and promoting White's rule. By the 20th century, a small herd of American style mavens -- Strunk and White, Theodore Bernstein, James Kilpatrick -- were labeling loan inferior, if not absolutely incorrect.
Not everyone joined the stampede. Bergen Evans, in the 1957 Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, called loan a "very respectable" verb: "It has been in existence for almost eight hundred years and was used in an act of Parliament in 1542." Harper's Dictionary of Contemporary Usage concurred in 1984, calling loan "perfectly acceptable."
But some stylebooks, including The
Such caution, however, may soon become superfluous. Linguist Larry Trask noticed several years ago that the American loan -- which he approved in "all but the most frostily formal styles" -- was reinvading Britain. It was especially popular, he said in wrote in his usage book "Mind the Gaffe," in the context of borrowed artworks: "This picture has been loaned by the Cincinnati Museum."
A Nexis search bears him out. In one recent week, UK newspapers used loaned dozens of times (though not quite as frequently as lent). The Daily Mail, for instance, was atwitter over the news that the queen had "loaned Camilla her mother's jewellery," a diamond necklace, to wear at the 60th-birthday bash Prince Charles was throwing.
And The Guardian reported that a draft list of the Labour Party's nominees for peerages "showed all those put forward had loaned the party millions of pounds."
It seems, then, that after giving us the verb loan, then mocking us for using it, the British now find that they like it after all. There could hardly be a sweeter revenge than returning this well-worn loan.