The Grammarphobia Blog

Can a bank “bank” (or “unbank”) you?

Q: I saw an ad for a bank—I can’t remember which one—that said: “XYZ banks me and my business.” If Mr. Murray were still putting together the OED, I’d add a slip to his pigeonhole for the word “bank.”

A: The verb “bank” in the money sense has a couple of well-established meanings.

It’s commonly used as an intransitive verb—that is, one without an object—meaning to have a bank account, as in “Where do you bank? I bank with First National.”

“Bank” is also used as a transitive verb—one with an object—in the sense of “deposit,” as in “I banked my paycheck,” or “He banks the receipts every week.”

But the usage you mention is a less familiar one. Here, “bank” is a transitive verb meaning “provide banking services to.” Examples: “Who banks you? First National banks me.”

It was noted recently by a subscriber on the American Dialect Society’s online mailing list that the word “bank” (or, rather, “unbank”) was used this way in a Jan. 5 article in the Wall Street Journal.

The newspaper said banks were looking for new fees to charge customers, replacing  old charges that had been disallowed by government regulators.

It quoted a spokeswoman for J.P. Morgan Chase as saying, “We don’t want to raise fees on our customers, but unfortunately, regulation is forcing us to do it, and as a result, some customers may end up unbanked.”

By “unbanked” she meant “unprovided with banking services.”

In using this inverted form of expression, you’ll notice, she was able to avoid saying WHO was pulling the plug. “You may end up unbanked” is another way of saying, “We may unbank you.”

A second ADS list subscriber pointed out that the usage dates back to the 1980s.

A third subscriber pointed out a different use of “unbank.” Credit unions use the term to differentiate themselves from banks. An ad for the credit union Connex, for example, says: “Unbank with us.”

We’ve found many similar usages ourselves. A financial services center in Minnesota, for instance, calls itself “The Unbank Company.” It even offers “unloans,” but presumably discourages “unpaying.”

So far, odd transitive uses of “bank” seem confined to corporate and advertising language. We haven’t found any examples of real people using “bank” this way in the real world.

The word “bank” entered English around 1200 as a noun meaning a ridge or mound or other raised area of the ground, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. There are similar words in Old Norse and Old Icelandic.

The verb “bank” showed up in the late 1500s in the transitive sense of to form a border and the intransitive sense of to border upon something.

The verb was first used in a financial sense in the 18th century. Initially, it was an intransitive verb meaning to run a bank or act as a banker, but that usage isn’t seen much now.

The OED’s first financial citation is from Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (2nd ed., 1738): “Banker, a person who banks, that is, negotiates, and trafficks in money.”

In the 19th century, the verb “bank” took on another intransitive sense: “to deposit money or keep an account with a banker.”

The earliest OED cite for this sense is from Harriet Martineau’s novel Berkeley the Banker (1833): “A man who brings a splendid capital, and will, no doubt, bank with us at D——.”

As a transitive verb meaning to deposit, “bank” appeared slightly later. The first OED citation is from an 1838 issue of a stage journal, Actors by Daylight, in which a writer refers to theater managers “having ‘banked’ their cash.”

The word that the Chase spokeswoman used (“some customers may end up unbanked”) hasn’t made it into James Murray’s OED or any other published dictionaries.

Frankly, we think it smacks of corporate gobbledygook and wouldn’t bank on it.

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