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/// “Neither a borrower nor a lender be . . .”: Language ignores the advice of Polonius

May 7, 2013 (updated August 14, 2016)

William Shakespeare has received credit for many contributions to the English language.[1]  Those contributions include the advice that Polonius gave to his son Laertes in the play Hamlet:[2]

Neither a borrower nor a lender be,

For loan oft loses both itself and friend,

And borrowing dulleth edge of husbandry.[3]


That advice has prospered as a proverb,[4] but it has been ignored by language, which provides fertile terrain for borrowing,[5] loan words,[6] calques or loan translations,[7] and related transplants[8] in spite of the possible consequences.[9]

As a lender, English has contributed many “foreign words”:[10]

anglicismes and américanismes to French,[11]

anglicismos, americanismos, and angloamericanismos to Spanish,[12] and

• Anglicisms[13] and Americanisms[14] to other languages.[15]

As a borrower, English is “a particularly permeable language”[16] that has borrowed most of its words.[17]  The borrowings include the suffix “–ism,” which “is one of the most prolific word-creating elements in the [English] language”[18] and has a long and productive history:

–ismos or –isma in Greek, -ismus or –isma in Latin, and -isme in French,[19]

• cognates[20] such as -ismo in Spanish,[21] and

• the English noun “ism.”[22]

Change is “a universal and unstoppable process” in which “[a]ll aspects of language are involved.”[23]  A language changes when it borrows a word; modernization,[24] naturalization,[25] and translation[26] are other manifestations of change in language.

The verb “dulleth” serves as an example not only of the variant spellings[27] in different versions of Hamlet[28] but also of the modernization of inflection[29] from the time of Shakespeare to the present.[30]  During the development of Modern English,[31] the inflection for the third person singular of the present tense of verbs changed from “-eth,” “-ath,” or “-th”[32] to “-s” (sometimes “-es”).[33]

The changes that occur during borrowing are not predictable.[34]  Naturalization changes some loan words more than others,[35] and translation involves complications such as indeterminacy and interpretation.

The respective histories of the words “calque” and anglicisme give us some idea of the degree to which the changes can vary:

• The Latin verb calcare produced the verb calcare and the noun calco in Italian, from which French borrowed the verb calquer and the related noun calque,[36] which English copied;[37]

• English borrowed the adjective Anglicus from Medieval Latin[38] and combined it with “-ism” to form the noun “Anglicism,”[39] which French changed to anglicisme.[40]

But some things never change.  Debates over Hamlet continue to boil after more than 400 years, and languages continue to borrow from one another.


[1] According to Shakespeare Online, “The English language owes a great debt to Shakespeare.  He invented over 1700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original.”  “Words Shakespeare Invented,” Amanda Mabillard, accessed March 22, 2016,

[2] The British Library provides an online resource, Discovering Literature: Shakespeare, with links to information about Hamlet.  “Hamlet,” British Library, accessed August 14, 2016,

[3] Ham I.iii.75-77, “Works: Hamlet; Act I, Scene iii,” Shakespeare’s Words, David Crystal and Ben Crystal, accessed March 22, 2016,

We can see another version of the same lines at The Complete Works of William Shakespeare:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark: Act 1, Scene 3,” Jeremy Hylton, accessed March 22, 2016,

[4] “Neither a borrower nor a lender be; For loan oft loses both itself and friend.”  Jennifer Speake, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, with contributions by John Simpson, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), s.v. “borrower nor a lender be, neither a.”

[5] During the 19th century, Professor William Dwight Whitney commented on the magnitude of “the bringing into a language of words borrowed out of other languages”:

Borrowing, in greater or less degree, is well-nigh universally resorted to; there is hardly a dialect in the world, of which the speakers ever come in contact with those of another dialect, which has not taken something out of that other.

William Dwight Whitney, The Life and Growth of Language: An Outline of Linguistic Science (New York: Dover, 1979), 114.

In the 21st century, Professor Calvert Watkins repeated his observation that “languages commonly borrow words and other features from one another, in a whole gamut of ways ranging from causal or chance contact to learned coinages of the kind that English systematically makes from Latin and Greek.”  Calvert Watkins, ed., “Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans,” in The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, 3rd ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), vii.  As Watkins emphasized again, however, borrowing is only one of the possible explanations for the similarities among languages.  Watkins, “Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans,” vi-vii.

[6] Author J.A. Cuddon defined the term “loan word” as “[a] word imported into a language from another language, or ‘borrowed’ from it.  Very often such borrowings are permanent.”  J.A. Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms (Garden City: Doubleday, 1977), s.v. “loan word.”   The term sometimes appears as a compound word (“loanword”) or a hyphenated word (“loan-word”).  Bryan A. Garner, “Glossary of Grammatical, Rhetorical, and Other Language-Related Terms,” in Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), s.v. “loanword”; R.R.K. Hartmann and Gregory James, Dictionary of Lexicography (London: Routledge, 2001), s.v. “loan-word.”

[7] Linguist David Crystal explained that “a loan translation or calque” occurs when “a word is not borrowed whole, but its parts are translated separately and a new word formed.”  David Crystal, How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die (New York: Avery, 2007), 225 (italic emphasis omitted).  The term “calque” (or “loan translation”) is also used in the field of translation studies, in which it “refers to a translation technique applied to [a source-language] expression and involving the literal translation of its component elements.”  Giuseppe Palumbo, Key Terms in Translation Studies (London: Continuum, 2009), s.v.v. “calque,” “loan translation” (bold emphasis omitted).

[8] The terms for the related transplants include “loan shift (change of meaning under influence from another language), loan concept or semantic loan (concept introduced by borrowing), [and] loan blend (blend of which one element is foreign).”  P.H. Matthews, comp., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Linguistics, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), s.v. “loan” (bold emphasis and internal reference omitted).

[9] One of the possible consequences of borrowing is that sometimes the form of a loan word makes it susceptible to “‘folk etymology’ or ‘popular etymology,’” which is a process that “appears to invent a new origin for a word, an origin which is contrary to fact.”  L. Bauer, “Folk Etymology,” in Concise Encyclopedia of Semantics, eds. Keith Brown and Keith Allan (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2009), 314.  Another possible consequence is that “when a concrete term is borrowed it usually becomes a (partial) false friend by means of a restriction in meaning.”  P. Chamizo-Dominguez, “False Friends,” in Brown and Allan, Concise Encyclopedia of Semantics, 310.

[10] As lexicographer Bo Svensén explained, “‘Foreign words’ is the term applied in many languages to established loanwords still obviously of foreign origin as well as to recently introduced words clearly alien in spelling and sometimes also in pronunciation.”  Bo Svensén, A Handbook of Lexicography: The Theory and Practice of Dictionary-Making (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 33.

[11] Dictionnaire de l’Académie français, 9th ed., s.v.v. “anglicisme,” “américanisme,” accessed March 22, 2016,

[12] Real Academia Española and Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, Diccionario de la lengua española, s.v.v.  “anglicismo,”“americanismo,” “angloamericanismo,” accessed March 22, 2016,

[13] The senses of the English noun “Anglicism” include “[a]nglicized language; an English idiom.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: On Historical Principles, 6th ed., s.v. “Anglicism.”

[14] One of the senses of the English noun “Americanism” is “[a] word, sense, or phrase peculiar to or originating from the United States of America.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Americanism.”

[15] Although “[l]oanwords from English, because of its global reach and political history, have attracted particular antagonism,” Crystal noted that “some of the words now condemned as Anglicisms (such as computer and hamburger) are not in fact etymologically English at all.”  David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 3rd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 48.  He explained that, in general, “[a]ntagonism towards individual loanwords tends to fade over time”:

The novelties of one generation become the traditions of the next.  The process is aided by the way words rapidly conform to the sound and spelling system of the new language, or appear in new structures and with new meanings.

Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 48.

[16] “English, a particularly permeable language, has assimilated a huge number of foreign elements, especially French, Scandinavian, Celtic, Latin and Greek.”  Cuddon, A Dictionary of Literary Terms, s.v. “loan word.”

[17] “English is a Germanic language which mainly consists of words that are not Germanic.  Certainly the most common words … are usually Germanic and resemble the corresponding item in German or the Scandinavian languages.  But the majority have been borrowed during the last thousand years.”  Tore Janson, A Natural History of Latin, trans. Merethe Damsgård Sørensen and Nigel Vincent (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 173.

[18] Michael Quinion, Ologies and Isms: A Dictionary of Word Beginnings and Endings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), s.v. “-ism.”

[19] Robert K. Barnhart and Sol Steinmetz, eds., Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (Edinburgh: Chambers, 2008), s.v. “-ism” (diacritical mark omitted).

[20] Crystal defined the term “cognate” and demonstrated its use as an adjective:

A language or linguistic form which is historically derived from the same source as another.  Spanish, French, and Portuguese are all cognate languages, deriving from Latin.  Many of their words, accordingly, have a common origin, and are also said to be cognate.

David Crystal, A Dictionary of Language, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), s.v. “cognate.”

[21] Real Academia Española and Asociación de Academias de la Lengua Española, Diccionario de la lengua española, s.v. “-ismo,” accessed March 22, 2016,

[22] The noun “ism” derived from the suffix and possesses the sense “[a] form of doctrine, theory, or practice having, or claiming to have, a distinctive character or relationship.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “ism.”

[23] Crystal, A Dictionary of Language, s.v. “language change.”

[24] The noun “modernization” derived from the verb “modernize,” one of the senses of which is “give a modern character or appearance to something.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “modernize” (parentheses omitted).

[25] The noun “naturalization” derived from the verb “naturalize,” one of the senses of which is “[i]ntroduce or adopt a word, practice, thing, etc.[,] into a country or into common use.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “naturalize” (parentheses omitted).

[26] The senses of the noun “translation” include “[r]emoval or conveyance from one person, place, time, or condition to another,” “[t]he action or process of expressing the sense of a word, passage, etc., in a different language,” “[t]he expression or rendering of something in another medium, form, or mode of expression,” and “[t]ransformation, alteration, change; changing or adapting to another use; renovation.”  Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “translation.”

[27] The variations include “dulleth th’edge,” “dulleth edge,” “dulleth the edge,” “duls the edge,” and “dulleth’ edge.”  Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, eds., Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, Arden Shakespeare (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006), 196.

[28] Shakespeare scholar Harold Jenkins commented that “Hamlet is unique among Shakespeare’s plays in having … three substantive texts. … The relation between them is complicated and in some respects puzzling.”  Harold Jenkins, ed., “Introduction: The Texts,” in Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, Arden Shakespeare (Walton-on-Thames: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1997), 18.  As a reader who is not a Shakespeare scholar, I was confused by the variations among the different editions of Hamlet that have been published.  The website Shakespeare’s Words based its texts of Shakespeare principally on the editions of a particular publisher and offered this explanation of the possible differences:

For users who make use of other editions of the texts, it is important to appreciate that varying editorial decisions will sometimes affect the way in which lines are numbered or words identified and spelled, and even at times scene divisions and numbering.

Works: About The Texts,” Crystal and Crystal, accessed March 22, 2016,

[29] Lexicographer Bryan Garner explained the relevant sense of the English noun “inflection”:

The change of form that a word undergoes to distinguish its case, gender, mood, number, voice, or other characteristics.  Nouns, pronouns, and verbs are inflected either by affixation or by internal vowel change.  Nouns are inflected to show that they are plural. … Verbs are inflected when conjugated.

Garner, “Glossary of Grammatical, Rhetorical, and Other Language-Related Terms,” s.v. “inflection” (internal bullet omitted).

[30] Like other editors, Jenkins determined that the available evidence did not establish a precise date for the writing or production of Hamlet, but he suggested that “[a] date between the middle of 1599 and the end of 1601 appears … beyond dispute.”  Jenkins, “Introduction: The Date,” in Hamlet, 1.  How far had the modernization of verb forms progressed at that time?

Two present-tense verb-endings from Middle English are still to be found in the Early Modern period: -est for the 2nd person singular following thou (as in thou goest); and -th or -eth for the 3rd person singular (as in she goeth). Both were reducing in frequency, and in due course the -est form would disappear (modern: you go), and the -(e)th form be entirely replaced by -s (modern: she goes).

Language Companion: List of Topics; Verb forms,” Shakespeare’s Words, Crystal and Crystal, accessed March 22, 2016,

[31] The website Words in English provides a chronological history of the English language that is divided into four time periods:

• the “Pre-English Period (before 600 AD),”

• the “Old English Period (ca. 600-1100),”

• the “Middle English Period (ca. 1100-1500),” and

• the “Modern English Period (ca. 1500-present).”

“A Brief History of English, with Chronology,” Suzanne Kemmer, accessed March 22, 2016,

The relevant details include the influence of Shakespeare and the time periods during which significant numbers of words have been borrowed.  “Index: Shakespeare, William,” “Borrowed Words,” Kemmer, accessed March 22, 2016,,

[32] Quinion, Ologies and Isms, s.v. “-eth².”

[33] Quinion, Ologies and Isms, s.v. “-s².”

[34] For example, translators may consider a variety of factors when they decide which “word or expression” to use:

A word … may be borrowed because it has no equivalents … or borrowed for stylistic effect. … The decision whether to translate a given [source-language] word with a borrowing ultimately depends on such factors as the purpose of the translation and the type of [target-language] audience.

Palumbo, Key Terms in Translation Studies, s.v. “borrowing.”

[35] As Garner observed, “Few or no changes are made to some adopted words,” but “[f]or others naturalization is evident.”  Garner, “Glossary of Grammatical, Rhetorical, and Other Language-Related Terms,” s.v. “loanword.”  If we juxtapose his definitions, we can see the contrasting degrees of change that distinguish the term “loan translation” — “[a] word or phrase borrowed from another language by literally translating the components” — from the term “loanword” — “[a] word borrowed or adopted from another language and partly or wholly naturalized.”  Garner, “Glossary of Grammatical, Rhetorical, and Other Language-Related Terms,” s.v.v. “loan translation,” “loanword.”

[36] Dictionnaire de l’Académie français, s.v.v. “calque,” “calquer,” accessed May 9, 2013,

[37] Barnhart and Steinmetz, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, s.v. “calque.”

[38] The varieties of Latin are frequently identified by terms such as “Old Latin,” “Late Latin,” “Medieval Latin,” “New Latin,” “Vulgar Latin,” or “Classical Latin.”  “Glossary of Language Names and Linguistic Terms,” in Barnhart and Steinmetz, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, s.v.v. “Latin,” “Medieval Latin.”  Here is one explanation of Medieval Latin:

[T]he Latin language, especially of European intellectuals during the Middle Ages, from about 700 A.D. to about 1500.  During this period … Latin ceased to be anyone’s mother tongue in the countries where the Romance languages developed. … The syntax and meanings of Medieval Latin were often much closer to modern languages (from which Medieval Latin borrowed liberally) than Classical Latin.

“Glossary of Language Names and Linguistic Terms,” in Barnhart and Steinmetz, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, s.v. “Medieval Latin.”

[39] Barnhart and Steinmetz, Chambers Dictionary of Etymology, s.v. “Anglicize.”

[40] Dictionnaire de l’Académie français, s.v. “anglicisme,” accessed March 22, 2016,  http://atilf.

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