The Grammarphobia Blog

On borrowed time

Q: I see “borrow” used a lot when one language adopts a word from another. I always ask myself if there are any plans to return the word. Doesn’t “borrow” mean to temporarily use with the intention of returning the item?

A: If using the verb “borrow” instead of “adopt” is a sin, then I’m guilty. But “borrow” has been used in this looser sense since the 13th century.

When the verb first entered English around the year 1000, it meant to take something “on pledge or security given for its safe return,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But by the 1200s, it could mean to make temporary use of a physical thing – say a neighbor’s plow – or to adopt as one’s own an immaterial thing: thoughts, expressions, words, customs, and so on.

An early published reference in the OED, for example, refers to borrowing the light of the sun. In Shakespeare’s King John (1595), Philip the Bastard tells John that “inferior eyes” shall “borrow their behaviors from the great.”

Interestingly, philologists, etymologists, and other language types often use the term “loanword” to refer to a word that one language borrows from another.

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