Calvin Coolidge

A recent article in the New York Times began:

“A few days before Christmas 2013, Stuart Dempster hired a car to take him from Bangkok to the rural town of Ban Phai, in northeastern Thailand. Mr. Dempster, a 55-year-old track and field coach from Australia, was accompanied by a tall, burly security contractor.”

Instead of “hired,” “rented” would be the word used by Americans, one of whom is the New Jerseyan author of the article, David Yaffe-Bellany. I put his “hired” under the category “Ventriloquism,” meaning I reckon he used it because his subject, the Australian Stuart Dempster, would have done. I don’t believe I’ve ever encountered the usage in the U.S. before, and I don’t expect to.

But it did remind me a particular old-fashioned American use of the word: as a synonym for “borrow.” I remembered using it in my biography of the Oklahoma-born humorist Will Rogers. He was in favor of our allies paying back the money they had borrowed to fund World War I, succinctly saying, “They hired it, didn’t they?”

I was initially confused when I looked up “hire” in The Dictionary of American Regional English because DARE said the “borrow” meaning came not from the Southwest but from New England. Then I consulted my book. It turned out Rogers didn’t utter the line himself, but was quoting the person who did, the famously laconic President Calvin Coolidge. And where was Coolidge from? Vermont.

33 thoughts on ““Hire”

  1. Agree that Americans would never hire a car. Had not heard of “hire” for “borrow” before. But (not having lived in England for a long time now), are Brits now hiring people – ie. employing them – which of course is normal in the US, but was not commonly done circa 1980 in England, that I recall?

    1. There used to be hiring fairs in the south of England at least – and probably elsewhere. They are described in the works of Thomas Hardy (among others), such as in Far from the Madding Crowd, where Gabriel Oak, having lost his sheep, has to put himself up for hire as a shepherd, and ends up hired by Bathsheba Everdene. Workers seeking a situation – men and women – would simply line up and be inspected and interviewed by potential employers, whether as land workers, household staff, stable men or trades/skills workers such as weavers or carpenters. I think hiring people has a long pedigree in the UK.

    2. Yes, everyone is ‘hiring’ now, where they used to ‘recruit’. I see it all the time now (in London) in notices stuck on windows of pubs, shops, restaurants: ‘We’re hiring’. It’s also in newspapers and media, including the BBC. ‘Firing’ is taking over from ‘sacking’ or ‘getting the sack’. I blame The Apprentice ‘You’re fired’ for that one. It’s all ‘hiring and firing’ now. I’ve just remembered ‘the labourer is worthy of his hire’, which is quite a bit older.

  2. But it did remind me a particular American use of the word: as a synonym for “borrow.”

    If this is a NOOB, then (once again) it’s something Americans have managed to get wrong in their lexical thieving ….

    “Hire” is not a synonym for “borrow”. “Borrow” in (my) British English doesn’t have the element of exchange that is a fundamental part of “hire”.

    In fact you could argue that it’s that element of exchange that changes borrowing” into “hiring”.

    It’s a little like there is a difference between “lease”, and “lend” …

  3. Without further information it’s hard to tell exactly what is meant, but I would tend to read “hired a car to take him from Bangkok to the rural town of Ban Phai” as implying something slightly different from what Americans would call renting a car. That is, I’d assume the car they hired for this trip came with a driver.

    1. That is not the UK usage however. A hire car in the UK would be a rental in the US. (I think/ Non-driver here.)

      Then there’s hire purchase. Is that used in the Us as a term? I think I’ve heard instalment plan for that. Instead of paying in full for an item, you make a number of payments over a period of time. Colloquially known as buying on the never never.

      1. I know that British usage has “hire” where Americans would have “rent” in many cases. What I’m disputing is the claim that the usage of “hire” in the article cited is an example of an American writer using a Britishism. I think this writer used “hire” rather than “rent” because he was engaging both car and driver for the trip.

      2. As I said elsewhere, the article makes it clear that he was not engaging (which by the way, I now realize, is the word Americans would probably use instead of “hire” in this situation) a driver, only the car.

      3. My US dialect has “rent-to-own” and “on layaway” for two different types of installment plans — the first, you have the item during the payment period, the second, you can’t have it until it’s paid in full. Neither are used when you actually take out a loan and then repay that. Layaway is very rare these days, although there was a big hoopla in recent times about it coming back at some stores due to economic downturn and tighter laws about credit cards.

        Have never heard “on time” used this way. Both would be formally described as an “installment plan”, as would paying off an actual loan (like a car loan, home loan).

  4. Like cameron, I immediately read “hired a car” to mean “hired a driver” rather than “rented a car.” Since that was my immediate sense of it, I’m pretty sure it’s been in my vocabulary for a pretty long time that way. Maybe it’s because I read a lot when I was growing up in the 50s and 60s? Maybe it’s because I would (this year, anyway; maybe a few years down the road) assume that if a car were going “to take him,” it would have a driver installed?

    1. I read it the same way possibly because of the wording ‘to take him’ but also because we talk about taxi and private hire or private cab hire, meaning with a driver. It’s also quite common for us to use or to see ‘rented’ or ‘rental car’.

  5. Search ‘hire a car uk’ and you’ll get page after page of British ‘rent/rental’ results. The first result reads ‘Cheap Car Hire in the UK – Find Cheap Rental Cars’.

    Then search ‘rent a car uk’ and you’ll get page after page of British ‘hire’ results. On the first page, the rentalcars.com result starts: ‘Compare car hire in the UK and find the cheapest prices…’ The next result, from Hertz Car Rental starts ‘Car Hire…’ and then, next sentence, ‘You must be over 25 to hire a car with Hertz in the UK.’

    So here in the UK the terms seem interchangeable. I use both without discrimination, I think I just echo whichever I hear used.

    Ben, your ‘…meaning I reckon…’ – I almost missed that ventriloquism – shouldn’t a proud American write ‘I figure’? – and I won’t be the only one; aim too high and those will go right over our heads.

    ‘Reck’ seems to be extinct in the UK, by the way; I wonder if it’s preserved anywhere in the US, or indeed anywhere in the Anglosphere.

    Lightly they’ll talk of the spirit that’s gone
    And o’er his cold ashes upbraid him,
    But little he’ll reck, if they let him sleep on
    In the grave where a Briton has laid him.

    1. ‘Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
      Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
      Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
      Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
      And recks not his own rede. ‘
      (Ophelia to Laertes.)

  6. Just my (strong) opinion, but I think Americans hire people and rent anything else. So, hiring a car would imply– for an American– that a driver was included. And it kind of makes sense even for that to be the British origin, since surely people hired cars with drivers long before they were able to rent cars to drive themselves.

    Borrow is a different thing altogether. Though I heard it used many times in my youth as a synonym for lend (“borrow me your bike?”), I never have heard it as a synonym for hire.

    1. I don’t think I heard “borrow” for lend, but I do recall it the other way round.

      Specifically, I remember an exchange at primary school – ages 7-11. A fellow people approached the teacher’s desk and asked, “Can I lend your rubber.” The teacher, deciding to emphasise the mistake by playing along with it, asked back, “Who do you want to lend it too?” When the pupil looked confused, he explained the difference between lend and borrow.

      And, if anyone is confused by that use of the word “rubber” in UK English it means a pencil eraser. I just got curious and the substance rubber gets its name from the verb “to rub”, making me wonder if the first use of india-rubber was in pencil erasers.

      1. Yes, I certainly recall hearing school kids (they used to be called “pupils” . . . are they “students” in the UK too now) in south London asking to lend things when the wanted to borrow them

      2. This was in the north of England, and getting on for sixty years ago now (although I was born in south London – Lewisham).. Don’t know what term is popular now, but I’ve seen both students and pupils used in newspaper articles recently. (Education has been much in the news.)

      3. Yes, Tony. They are usually referred to as students rather than pupils. When and how did that happen? Mother talked about scholars. That’s what pupils were known as in her day.

  7. As an Aussie, a ‘hire car’ would be expected to come with a driver; the rest of us just rent cars. He would not have described himself as a ‘track and field coach’ – I checked his website just in case, and he calls himself an athletics coach.

      1. Not necessarily – I found out that he moved to Australia as an adult – he was born and educated in the UK – so it is perfectly possible he was using UK terminology.

  8. Certainly a UK hire car could come with driver. There is, I believe, a distinction in the licensing laws between a taxi, which can be hailed, and a hire car, which must be booked in advance. How Uber fits into this I don’t know.

  9. Here in Oz we’d rent a house to live in, but hire a hall for an event. Rent in fact has its roots in the law of landlord and tenant, as the payment for a lease of land. Such a lease gives the tenant many of the rights of ownership, not least of which is undisturbed possession of the property. But if you only have a licence to occupy some properry fora short time and no accntmentsof ownership are given, then you are merely hiring the premises and not reanting them.

    Traditionally at law you cannot lease personal property, only real property. That distinction has been blurred over the years such that now much factory and office equipment is leased.

    Mostly ”hire’ used to denotea short term arrangment where things as opposed to people were concerned. Rental tended to refer to more long term contracts.

  10. I realise this is a pretty late addendum, but I did read the article and immediately assumed it to be a “hire car” with a driver. Not only because of the choice of words, but because of the inherent difficulties two white guys – and later with a child – would have if stopped at any of the numerous police checkpoints that may exist along the route. Also, such an operation is not necessarily an easy A to B operations Google Maps can help with. If you’re going to abduct someone, it would be crazy not to make sure that you can read the signs, situations and the culture.

    Besides, the article directly quotes there being an unnamed driver in the car: “By the time Mr. Dempster and Mr. Stilla reached the street, a crowd was beginning to form. The driver refused to open the car door. Ms. Taweerart started pulling N. from Mr. Dempster’s arms.”

  11. ‘Rent-to-own’ sounds to me like what is technically known in accounting as a ‘finance lease’ (the lessor makes regular payments to the lessee for the duration of the lease, has use of the leased item and attains ownership of it at the end of the term). An operating lease exists when the lessor has the right to use the leased item for the duration of the lease but doesn’t attain ownership at the end of the term. I’m not sure what it would be called in the U.K when the lessor makes regular payments to the lessee but doesn’t have the right to use the item until all the payments are completed, apparently ‘on layaway’ in America. ‘On hire purchase’/‘On HP’/‘On tick’/‘On the never never’/‘On finance’ are all terms used for a finance lease (‘rent-to-own’) in the U.K

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