Imagine waking up and finding it’s okay to say “Hey, will you borrow me some money?” Well, you might just be in Germany! On dict.cc, leihen is the translation most commonly given for “to lend” and ausleihen for “to borrow.” Keep looking, though, and “to borrow” shows up under leihen and “to lend” shows up under ausleihen. Moreover, if you look up leihen or ausleihen in ein Wörterbuch you will find both translations given as possible meanings . When I saw a translation of Shakespeare’s line as Kein Borger sei und auch Verleiher nicht, I began to hope that borgen, which looks and sounds quite a bit like “borrow,” might mean this and only this. In turns out, however, that it can also mean “to lend.” (Interestingly, the Online Etymology Dictionary shares this gem in the entry for “borrow” – Old High German boragen “to beware of” – perhaps Shakespeare had this meaning in mind when he put those words in Polonius’ mouth?!).
A Practical Dictionary of German Usage, while confirming the substitutability, did offer a bit of help. When “lend” is the intention, there is often a dative pronoun indicating the recipient – Kannst du mir bitte Hamlet leihen? When the sense is “borrow,” there is often a dative pronoun but in this case it is reflexive, referring back to the subject who is doing the borrowing, and the sentence can include a von or a bei – Ich habe mir Hamlet von dir geliehen.
Two other family members intrigued me. The first is verleihen which is used when it is the figurative sense of “lend” that is intended. DWDS.de gives as an example die dicken Wände liehen dem Raum angenehme Kühle – “the think walls lent the room a pleasant coolness” – and from the Practical Dictionary comes Der Hopfen verleiht dem Bier den bitteren Geschmack – “The hops lent the beer its bitter taste.” The other, pumpen, which is the familiar version of leihen (and like it can be either “lend” or “borrow”), makes me giggle because I see someone “pumping” someone else for a loan: könnte ich mir bei dir etwas Geld pumpen?
Speaking of loans, to add to the fun, there is der Lohn which means “wage” or “pay” as opposed to “loan,” which makes your “income tax” die Lohnsteuer. I imagine some of you reading in the US have the feeling that the taxman is “pumping” you for money today!