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TWTS: Lend your ears before you loan your money

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Anyone who’s ever lent money probably knew there was at least a small chance that money was gone for good. It’s the same with belongings. Books and clothes you’ve loaned may find permanent residence in someone else’s closet or bookshelf.

That’s why it’s a good idea to get everything in writing.

Not all loans come with that sort of risk. A listener named Michele Compton recently asked us to lend a hand in figuring out whether there’s a difference between “loaned” and “lent.” Since we know Michele can’t actually take our hands and keep them forever, we decided this was a safe bet.

"Loan" and "lend" are historically related to each other. "Lend" goes all the way back to Old English. It's a verb that was derived from an Old English noun that meant "loan." The noun didn't survive, but the verb lived on as "lend" with the past tense "lent."

The noun "loan" was borrowed into English from Old Norse, which is a cognate language with English. That's how "loan" and "lend" are related to each other -- they eventually go back to the same source. The borrowed noun "loan" gives us the verb "loan." We know for sure the verb was in English by the 1500s, but it may have been around as early as the 1300s.

Style guides and usage commentaries from the 19th century were very critical of the verb "loan." They posited that "loan" should only be used as a noun, with "lent" as the verb. That's despite the fact that "loan" as a verb had been around for at least 200 years by that point.

So why all the vitriol for this elderly verb? We don't know for sure. However, we do know that as it fell out of use among British English speakers, American English speakers continued to use "loan" as a verb. We also know that British English speakers critiqued American English in the 18th and 19th centuries. The verb "loan" may have been part of this critique. Some called it provincial while others said it was just wrong.

Regardless, today "loan" and "lend" are both verbs, and only "loan" is a noun. Usually, they're interchangeable, but there are a few places where they're not. To hear some examples, listen to the audio above.

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Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.