hire and rent

I promised @matthewddsg weeks ago that this would be the next blog entry. Then I did another one instead and had to write other things for other places. So here it is, not quite a month since I promised it. For me, that's pretty good!

The upshot: in BrE one hires things (and sometimes places), employs people, and rents places; in AmE one hires people and rents things or places. That said, one hears hire for people in BrE too, but just not as much as one does in AmE. And employ is not particularly non-American, it's just overwhelmed by hire there. Both have let for what the landlord might do and lease for certain things (e.g. long-term non-ownership of cars, I think). It'll probably be easiest if I go through these verbs one at a time.

Rent can refer to the act of letting something to someone (I rented some land to him) or to the act of paying someone to use their something (I rented some land from him). This is old news--since the Middle Ages when it came into English from French. The OED notes one sense that is 'chiefly North American' which means 'To be hired out for or let at a certain rate', as in (their example):
1992   Albuquerque (New Mexico) Monthly Oct. 37/2 (captionThe tux, suitable for any performance in Albuquerque's doubtful performing arts center, rents for $55 and sells for $425.
But why does AmE use rent for things besides (now particularly AmE) real estate and BrE doesn't so much? The first examples the OED has of non-real-estate rented things are American: a guide in 1817, boats in 1895 and pianos in 1903. Comparing rent a boat with hire a boat in American English via Google Ngrams, one can see how recent this change is:

So, use of rent for non-real-estate seems to be an American innovation, possibly motivated by more limited use of hire and/or by the advent of so-called rent-a-car companies in the 1920s. 

I searched the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) for nouns that came one or two words after rent a. The top 10 are: car, room, house, movie, boat, bike, video, place, canoe, kayak. Further down the list we get tuxedo, horse, harp and grandchild. Compare this to the British National Corpus, where the top 5 (because it is a smaller corpus) are: room, house, place, car, villa. (And half of the six rent a car examples are in the names of American companies.)

Americans can even rent time, for example (from the San Francisco Chronicle, via COCA):
He pays $10 an hour to rent studio time and pays to rent equipment when he goes on remote
While one can find British examples of rent studio time, the more common phrase would be to book studio time, using the much-more-BrE-than-AmE sense of book to mean 'reserve'. Book in this sense often gets extended beyond the action of reserving the room/time so as to include the using of the thing that was reserved.

A particularly British use of rent is noted by the OED (my emphasis):
In various extended and humorous (typically derogatory) uses, suggesting the temporary acquisition or instant availability of the person or thing specified, usually for an expedient or mercenary purpose; spec. (chiefly Brit.) denoting a faction of regular, esp. violent, participants in public protests, in rent-a-crowd, rent-a-mob, etc. See also rent-a-cop n., rent-a-quote adj. and n.
But note that it's only rent-a-mob/crowd that is British. Rent-a-cop is label(l)ed as 'N. Amer. depreciative', and all of these humorous extensions have the American rent-a-car (BrE car hire) to thank for their existence.

Hiring people and hiring things both go back to at least the 13th century. So this is not a case of either nation making up new meanings, but of the 'thing' meaning dying out in AmE and gaining prevalence in BrE.

I searched the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE) for nouns that occurred one or two words after hire a*. The * there allows it to be 'a' or 'an' (or 'any' or 'all' or anything else that starts with a-; other words are less likely to be frequent and therefore influence the outcome--but that doesn't mean it hasn't happened; see below). This is my way of looking for direct objects of hire. The software on the website calculates which words co-occur (or collocate, to use the jargon) with the search string in higher-than expected rates for each dialect. Here are the strongest collocates:


This is not to say that it's not real British English to 'hire a person', just that such uses don't stand out in the data. Hire in BrE is not a magnet for the word person like it is in AmE.

To give a broader sense of the kinds of things one can hire in BrE, the top 10 nouns after hire a in the (20ish-year-old) British National Corpus are: car, video, house, boat, bike, minibus, van, room, plane, helicopter.  There's a distinction to be made here between hiring a room and renting a room. One hires a room for an event; one rents a room to live in.

In the case of fire in the BrE list, it seems to be that the verb fire has been mislabel(l)ed as a noun by the software that automatically tags words for part of speech. In this case, it represents the phrase hire and fire. So, that one is about doing something to people, but it seems to be part of a nearly-set phrase (it's used much more in the BrE part of the corpus than the AmE part).

Because hire is used so much, employ (orig. AmE) loses out in AmE. Searching GloBWE for employ a *man (which would capture employ a woman/a man/a postman, etc. but conveniently leaves out employ a metaphor or anything like that), I found 16 BrE examples and 0 AmE ones.

I've already covered this one briefly. Both AmE and BrE have this word with the meaning 'to rent out', but BrE has developed an intransitive sense that means 'to be let'. Thus one sees UK properties advertised as 'to let' where US ones would be 'for rent'. Click on the link to see what happens to 'to let' signs (if you can't imagine it).

To lease is the same in AmE & BrE. But I can't leave this post without mentioning that the British may get a new lease of life, while Americans get a new lease on life. Not a verb there, but if I hadn't mentioned it, someone would have asked for it in the comments, I'm sure.

Wrote this late at night, so glad to see a lot of good info on the fine points of employ/hire in the comments!


  1. In my speech, hiring people is like booking.

    Hire means 'take on' someone who you may continue to employ, or who may serve for a particular task. I would hire a tourist guide or an interpreter.

    (Others might hire someone offering more disreputable services.)

    book means 'order in advance' something that you (presumably) go on to enjoy for a set time. (Another way of saying what you said, Lynne, except for the emphasis on set time.) We booked seats or We booked a table may mean 'We hired them/it, having arranged in advance'.

    (Returning to the disreputable, I would speak of others booking an an escort — or whatever euphemism you prefer.)

    With things, hiring is one-off and brief. I might hire a room for an evening, whereas renting would be for weeks or (more likely) for months or years. A hotel room I would either book (by arrangement) or take (having just turned up).

    Employ can be used in a sense that;s close to using a metaphor when (at least in my speech) we say employ the services of. I would use this as the equivalent of hire. But employ with a human object means (for me) 'be the (relatively long-term) employer of'.

    A fancier word for hire is engage — which also means either 'take on' or 'pay for a one-off service'.

    (I don't thing engage is used much in the vice trade. But you might (in my speech) engage someone as a perfectly respectable escort in the older, less usual sense.)

  2. The American country song "King of the Road" opens with the line

    Trailers for sale or rent ; rooms to let, fifty cents.

    Roger Miller had a hit with it in 1964; Dean Martin recorded it the following year.

  3. 1. I rarely hear "let" in the real-estate sense in the US. It certainly seems far more common in Britain.

    2. One can "hire" a car (or boat) in the US, but only if one engages a person along with the vehicle. "Hiring" a boat (to my now US-trained ears) suggests employing a helmsman to steer the vessel.

  4. In my AmE idiolect, to hire a person is most often used to refer to the beginning of employment. To employ a person is to continue that employment over a longer period of time.

  5. Clearly, someone needs to start a "Hire a Grandchild" business in the UK. There is a gap in the market!

  6. I agree with Clint. It seems to me, in NYC, that first you hire somebody, and then after all the paperwork is signed you continue to employ them. Or you don't, if you only hired them for a short-term gig.

  7. Eloise Pasteur09 April, 2014 08:44

    From a UK perspective I'd say I hire someone as a fixed-term prospect only. That might be moderately long term - to pick a morbid example a palliative care nurse until I die for example - whereas employment is a potentially life-long prospect.

    Which is ironic, because in another venue I argue pretty fervently that I don't really believe that there's such a thing as a life-long job any more. But I guess my expectation of the language hasn't shifted with my expectation of the economy quite yet. Maybe the new real politick is that employment is a job in which you stand a realistic chance of promotion and/or training from your employer, hiring is a short-term contract in which you might get rarely job-specific training but you wouldn't expect promotion.

    I would agree with David Crosbie that hiring a thing is a brief arrangement - for the night, maybe for a week or two - "I hired a fancy car for our holiday" - but beyond that it would be a lease or rent depending on the circumstances.

  8. For bonus points, write a sentence to illustrate an occasion for renting "tuxedo, horse, harp and grandchild".

  9. In the non-so-distant past when most labourers were engaged for the day, market towns in Britain would hold annual Hiring Fairs, where farmers would engage men and women to work for a year.

    Day labourers were also hired. Hence The labourer is worthy of his hire. I didn't realise until I googled it that this is a biblical quote, likening the mission of Jesus's disciples to the work of labourers hired for the harvest.

    The Greek means 'deserves his remuneration package' — Jesus was saying 'Eat and drink whatever your master-equivalent host might offer because you're worth it'. But translators have followed Wycliffe et al's (1382) Forsothe a workman is worthi his hyre.

    In the days before credit cards and modern arrangements based on loan and repayment, we would buy expensive items like TV sets by hire purchase. This was hiring in the sense that you made regular payments and din;t own the item. But it was purchasing in the sense that after a fixed number of payments, you became the owner and stopped paying.

    Interestingly, an important alternative was to make regular payments without eventual purchase to a firm called Radio Rentals.

    I don't know whether it was the length of time it took before true purchase was achieved, or whether too many people fell down on their payments and didn't get as far as owning the items... Whatever the reason, hire purchase was popularly known as the never never.

  10. I think the Amerian equivalent of hire-purchase would be rent-to-own, which was still going strong in Tucson in the late nineties and probably later than that. When I moved there I had to rent a bed for a few weeks while I was waiting for my transatlantic furniture shipment, and I was somewhat worried that if my shipment was held up too long I'd end up owning (at an extortioniate price) a second-hand queen-sized bed that I didn't really want

  11. We still have a Rent-to-Own in my town. My Mom used to rent furniture for Christmas, to set up in our basement.

  12. ellarien

    Your bed reminded me of various blues songs about the furniture man and the constant danger that he will seize it all back because the singer hasn't paid. I googled furniture man blues and got this hit. It uses the wording

    in the 1920s as installment payment plans became common for all kinds of goods

    An instalment plan would seem to be the same as a hire purchase agreement.

  13. In limousines and taxicabs in this State, those that do not accept passengers from the street must display a "Not for hire" sign. I have also seen that notice on some delivery trucks.

  14. poesie-a-tempo.blogspot.com09 April, 2014 16:21

    Brilliant, Lynne! Very useful to me, a teacher of English in France who keeps having to teach two languages.
    Thx to all commentators, too (vp etc.)

  15. I know when I visit the USA I notice the difference when I visit an ice rink, as the area that in the UK is the skate hire is, in the USA, the skate rental. And the car hire firms are car rentals, even if they are the same firms that I am familiar with here!

    As an aside, on the "To let" thing, I was amused some years ago when this sign went up on the obsolete public lavatories in a local park....

  16. I known what "installment plan" means, but that particular term is not very commonly used in America these days. I actually associate "installment plan" very strongly with Auden's poem "The Unknown Citizen," which he wrote in 1939, just after moving to America. So I imagine that the term was in common usage in Britain as well as America in the 1930s.

  17. Buzz

    I've found one British dictionary that explains instalment plan as 'American for hire purchase', and I suspect there may be more.

    Nobody uses either term nowadays because the practice they denote has been superseded by modern credit arrangements.

    Auden's poem seems full of specifically American terms like Bureau (not Board of Office), union dues (not subscriptions), Inc (not Ltd), Health-card, phonograph (not gramophone), radio (not wireless), frigidaire (not fridge) . There are probably others which no longer sound foreign.

  18. @David Crosbie: It's interesting that the Auden's diction looks American to you, because to me it looks rather British. The only thing that I had specifically noticed as obviously American was the frigidaire (which is a famous, but virtually obsolete, brand name; I don't know if it was ever a generic term), although when you point them out, some of the others are now almost as obvious.

    However, some of the terms you point out seem no more natural in American English than the British variety. "Health-card" is utterly foreign, and "bureau" is not particularly common name for a governmental body here either. The standard term would be "department," with "office" probably second. That said, there are important instances of "bureau," most notably the similarly-named Bureau of Labor Statistics, which collects and tabulates employment data. So that one might still be more characteristically American.

    Yet there are also some usages that are quite obviously not American, most obviously "mates" (which is common in many varieties of English, but not American). "In hospital" also falls into this category. Others which are less clear-cut include the usages of "official complaint," "sound," and "paper" (instead of "newspaper," but that one may have shifted significantly even in American usage over the intervening decades; I'm not certain). To my ear, these sound more characteristic of British idiom.

    I suppose Auden knew all of this. Actually, having the language not be identifiable as one contemporary variety serves the purpose of the poem, since it suggests the possibility of a transcontinental English-speaking state (prefiguring Oceania) having erected the monument.

  19. Buzz

    Frigidaire was a leading brand either side of the Atlantic. Some years before anyone else we knew bought a fridge — around 1950 I'd say — one of my uncles bought a frigidaire. Within a few years, we'd bought a refrigerator, along with most middle-class families. It was a time when headlines reported our our Prime Minister as telling us You've never had it so good (not his actual words). Still, ours was a British brand (They're all German ad Italian nowadays). Frigidaire never became a generic term like Hoover.

    There's just one example of a remembered use from when imported American fridges were virtually the only models available:

    When baby's cries were hard to bear
    We put him in the fridgidaire
    My wife said, 'Dear I'm so unhappy
    Our darling's now completely frappé!

    By contrast the Chicago blues singer Washboard Sam, appealing in 1937 to an audience with aspirations — if not actual purchasing power — sang

    When I get you mama : we going to move on the outskirts of town
    Because I don't want nobody : ooo always hanging around
    Well the reason mama : I don't want you to stay here
    I don't need no iceman : I'm going to get me a frigidaire
    That's why : I'm going to move on the outskirts of town
    Because sweet baby : I don't want no iceman hanging around

    A few years later, war mobilisation lent a new twist to Jazz Gillum's version of the song

    I'm going to leave you baby : out here on the outskirts of town
    I brought you out here mama : and you won't stop fooling around
    I've cut out my iceman : I bought me a frigidaire
    Now you let the serviceman : take you everywhere
    I'm going to leave you baby : out here on the outskirts of town
    I ain't going to stand nobody : ooo always hanging around

    By the way You've never had it so good was a conscious Americanism. Harold Macmillan spoke in a hugely upper-class accent, but he was a shrewd operation who scattered odd plebeian touches in his speech. And in those days a n 'ungrammatical' Americanism was considered plebeian.

  20. I should have pointed out the obvious connexion between the increased consumer spending in the cities on things like fridges and the rapid spread of hire purchase.

    The years before had a label which has just come back into fashion: austerity. This was reflected in the price paid by the customer (no 'consumers' yet) and the lack of investment in design and high-grade materials by the manufaturers. We even had a continuation of war-time rationing.

    Not paying in full was regarded by many as a worrying new trend. The age of the credit card was a decade in the future.

  21. Sorry, my spellchecker insisted on

    spending in the cities

    What I meant was

    spending in the fifties

  22. As an English person, I'd feel uncomfortable talking of 'hiring' rather than 'employing' someone. I think that confirms what Lynne has said. It sounds to my ears like treating a person as a thing.

    I think even the phrase 'hiring and firing' which is widespread because it rhymes, works because it conveys something of the same flavour, an employer who takes people on and throws them away without really thinking about it or them.

  23. Dru

    For me hiring and employing are two distinct things. I wouldn't employ a tour guide or an interpreter. It's maybe a little different if the person paid for comes to me; I could perhaps say It was such a big party that we employed a cook for the day but I'd still be more likely to say We hired a cook.

    The point about hiring and firing is that each is an abrupt transaction. Hiring in this sense means 'recruit, sign on'. By contrast employing is a state of considerable duration.

    The alternative to hiring someone is, I suppose, to view him or her like a hotel room:
    • We booked a tour guide (by prior arrangement)
    • We took a tour guide (after turning up on spec)

    Of course, you can always say We paid for a guide, interpreter or whatever.

  24. This comment has been removed by the author.

  25. @Dru:
    As an English person, I'd feel uncomfortable talking of 'hiring' rather than 'employing' someone. I think that confirms what Lynne has said. It sounds to my ears like treating a person as a thing.

    That's fascinating. Incidentally, I tried a Google News search of UK sites for "hire", and the "hire a person" meaning seems to have a slight lead over the "hire a thing" meaning. I found this somewhat surprising, based on my memories of living in the UK, but I suppose that the news is inherently biased: the hiring of people (whether of a single notable individual, or of people in general for employment statistics) is generally more newsworthy than the hiring of things.

  26. Yes, in the US being hired is the transition from not being employed to being employed. Employment begins after you are hired (or, from the employer's perspective, after you hire someone), and continues until you/they retire, are fired, are laid off (or let go), or die.

    Things cannot be hired; only people can be. Things can be rented, borrowed, or owned. The first two refer to both the moment of acquisition and the state that persists throughout possession; the last only to the state that persists. You need another term for the moment of acquisition (e.g. purchased, inherited, stole).

    No one seems to have commented on the fact that in the US, we generally quote a monthly rent and an annual salary, whereas in Britain both of these seem to be conventionally quoted by the week. This seems particularly odd in the case of real estate that is not available for short-term rental. (In the US, we quote a monthly rent even for an annual lease because the rent is normally payable in monthly installments. Do British landlords require weekly payments?)

    Lynn, I was surprised to see you refer to "real estate" without marking it as AmE. I've noticed that UK usage seems to be simply "estate," which always makes me wonder whether the agent might think you're looking to live in a virtual apartment.

  27. Ted

    we generally quote a monthly rent and an annual salary, whereas in Britain both of these seem to be conventionally quoted by the week

    This may be changing, but I've always heard about and spoken about a monthly salary or a weekly wage here in Britain. If you add up the 12 or the 52 payments, the result is an annual salary or annual wages. Or, of course, annual income — a term which has to be available for the self-employed.

    The annual salary/wage/income figure is before (income) tax. This may or may not be true when someone speaks of their monthly salary/weekly wage.

    Rent used to be expressed according to when it was payable — weekly, monthly or (in rare cases) annually. Nowadays I think it's more usual to express it according to how it is calculated. I believe monthly rates are now more common than weekly rates.

  28. The is only one group of people whose pay I hear quoted by the week in British media: football (soccer) players.

    That could be a tribute to the game's working-class history, or, alternatively, an attempt to emphasize how obscenely overpaid the players are.

  29. Ted

    Things cannot be hired; only people can be.

    What do you say for very brief periods of paid use? The use of a room for a couple of hours? The use of a posh suit for a dinner or a wedding or a race meeting? The use of a computer for half an hour?

  30. David, that's exactly what renting a tuxedo (a "posh suit," though we'd never use the word "posh") is all about. If you rarely have occasion to wear such an item, it's probably not economical to buy one, so if such an occasion arises (a wedding, for example), you might rent one for the evening.

    If you've never seen the movie "Metropolitan," I recommend it highly. The fact that the protagonist rents rather than owns his tux when he becomes friends with the sort of kids who routinely go to affairs that require what we, but not you, would think of as "fancy dress" is a significant plot point.

  31. Although if you're merely using a thing for a short time without actually taking possession of it -- the archetypal example being a computer at a cyber café -- you would probably say that you're renting time on the computer, rather than renting the computer itself.

  32. A conversation that opened a recent episode of The Archers reminded me that rental of agricultural land in the UK is payable quarterly, on specific days.

    In England the rent falls due on Lady Day (25 Mar), Midsummer Day (24 Jun), Michaelmas (29 Sep), and Christmas Day (25 Dec); but in Scotland the relevant days are Candlemas (28 Feb), Whitsunday (28 May), Lammas (28 Aug) and Martinmas (28 Nov). Not sure what happens in Wales.

    ... And we wonder why Americans think Britain is 'quaint'!

  33. Ted, I did mark 'real estate' as AmE. Only the first time, or else it gets cumbersome. But if you're going to get me on details, please note my name has an e! :)

  34. Ted

    Renting a tuxedo. You can't imagine how weird that sounds to my ag(e)ing British ears!

    (We don't call the tuxedos, but that's not the problem.)

    A dinner jacket just isn't a place to live at.

    Renting time sounds strange but somehow not as weird. I suppose because one can imagine a fantasy world where dinner suits are fixed down under railway arches and let out to the homeless. But a (real) estate market for time challenges even the fantasy writer.

  35. Ted

    Actually renting a tuxedo would have sounded less weird if I hadn't known you were talking about enjoying it for an evening.

    Without knowing the context, I might have assumed that someone had taken out a longish contract on the suit, and was keeping it at home for the duration. A musician, say, playing for a season in a more dressy band than usual.

  36. Oops! Sorry about the missing e.

    But it's the other minor inaccuracy in my comment that really got in the way of the question. You flagged the two-word phrase "real estate" as primarily AmE, but it's the BrE use of plain "estate" that I was really thinking about. The New York Times, for example, has a weekly real estate section, where real estate brokers are quoted about the state of the real estate market.

    Would the equivalent in a British paper be an estate section, in which estate brokers talk about the estate market? That sounds passing strange.

  37. In terms of posh suits, I very much hope my husband will hire a morning coat when we go to my niece's wedding in July!

    And here, it is estate agents who may or may not have things to say in the housing section of the weekend paper.

    I'm trying to think what I say in terms of going to an Internet café, for instance, where my American friends would rent time on a computer - I think I'd buy it, as you can't, after all, give it back...Yes, I'd buy an hour on a computer in an internet café, or a session in the gym or (more probably) the ice rink. I certainly am buying practice ice before our next major competition..... 57 88349925

  38. Oops, please excuse the random number at the end of my last post - I obviously typed the capcha in the wrong place!

  39. Ted: Thanks for my 'e'! It is dear to meee.

    It wouldn't be 'estate' in BrE. (Though the equiv of 'real estate agents' is 'estate agents'.) The relevant section of the newspaper here is 'Property'. I thought about writing 'property' in the post, but it was the distinction between land/buildings and other kinds of property that I wanted to emphasi{s/z}e.

  40. Ted

    I would expect Property Section. We speak of property prices (as well as house prices). And for many middle-class young couples the ideal is to get on the property ladder — i.e. to buy what they hope will be the first of several houses, each more valuable than the one before.

    A less formal term we use is bricks and mortar.

    Come to think of it, I would understand bare property to refer to houses and flats. Other real estate is commercial property.

    The word estate collocates with agent for brokers of housing, if not of commercial property. Otherwise, it denotes a large patch of land in one of two senses:

    1 the land surrounding an upper-class pile including farmland, any other worked land such as forestry, and housing for employees working the estate

    2 what I think you would call a project a large area built up with social housing. Historically, these were built by local government bodies known here as councils, so they were council estates.

    Thus He grew up on an estate holds an ambiguity that's quite popular with comedians. It's said of politicians with working-class roots, but can easily be twisted to describe (not always accurately) the landed aristocratic background of the toffs at the top of the present government.

    Estate is sometimes used for all the buildings owned by a concern even though spread over different patches of land. And it denotes the total wealth for disposal under somebody's will.

  41. I've always assumed in BrE that hire refers to something you pay once for a limited period of time, and rent refers to something you pay repeatedly for a longer or unspecified period of time, and that neither refers to people in polite senses.

  42. Lynne

    I started answering ted and writing about property before you posted your reply. Then I got distracted once or twice.

    For me property is generally quite unambiguous. if it means 'possessions', it needs the support of a possessive or the word which alludes to but doesn't name the owner — namely private. The one exception I can think of is the impersonal All property must be removed meaning 'You must remove your property'.

    So property alone as an uncountable noun refers (for me) to buildings or possibly land with one or more buildings on. Personally I wouldn't use property to refer to just land.

    I may be wrong, but I get the feeling that property brokers differentiate themselves according to what they sell:

    estate agents: houses and flats
    proper agents: commercial property
    land agents: land

  43. I don't understand why my link to the podcast of that Archers episode doesn't work. I did test it before submitting it. Try this one instead:

  44. I'd probably "reserve" or "book" a room for an event, and "pay for" computer time at an internet cafe. The room could be "rented" at a stretch, but not the computer time. Definitely neither are hired. (AmE)

  45. Rentaghost! That is really all I have to add to this discussion.

  46. Interesting. Here "property" is a broader term, which includes real property, personal property, intellectual property, tangible and intangible property, etc. It basically has the same scope as "assets." Real estate is certainly a common category of property, but if I heard the term "property" without a qualifier, I wouldn't generally think the speaker was referring specifically to real estate.

    Note that "real estate," like "property," is a mass noun. ("Property," though, can also be used as a count noun to refer to a specific item of property, such as a parcel of real estate.)

    On "estate" standing alone, I guess I saw "estate agent" signs in the UK, figured out that this must be the equivalent of "real estate agent" here, and mistakenly concluded that "real estate" as an attributive noun mapped more generally to "estate."

    We also use "estate" to refer to the property held by a decedent, and to the legal construct that is the owner of that property before title transfers to the legatees.

    And, David, thanks for the gloss on "estate" as a type of property. We have the first sense but not the second, which I learned relatively recently. Some time after that, I heard "Come Dancing" on the radio and was struck by the realization that I had completely misunderstood a key lyric for years. The narrator reminisces about how his sister used to go out with her boyfriends on Saturday nights to dance at the local pally, since torn down and replaced by a bowling alley and then a parking lot. His sister cried when they tore it down, because that was the place where she used to have fun when she was a teenager.

    "Now she's married and she lives on an estate," Ray Davies sings, "but if I asked her, I wonder if she would come dancing." I had always thought that meant his sister was a rich wife, the mistress of a grand house, who has far more sophisticated entertainments to occupy her Saturday nights, but that she might still enjoy the simple pleasures of a dance at a local dancehall, as she did when she was young. I realize now that what he probably means is that she doesn't have much money, lives with an unromantic husband in a council flat, and doesn't get to do fun things on Saturday nights at all. So "I wonder if she would come dancing" doesn't mean "I wonder if she's too jaded to enjoy something so basic"; it means "I wonder if she's too disillusioned to enjoy anything at all, even something that used to be her greatest pleasure."

    What I didn't appreciate until you pointed it out was that the same ambiguity exists in BrE.

  47. @David Crosbie: An American alternative to "rent-hire" or "installment plan" is "lay-a-way" or "layaway". While this was innovative during the Depression and fell away with the advent of credit cards, it's making a come-back.

    This is likely due to the fact that some people are finding it harder to get credit cards or any other sort of credit.

    Major chains like KMart, Sears, Toys-R-Us have all started offering the program again.

    Unrelated to the above, but on-topic, where does 'rent boy' fall into the (impolite) discussion?

  48. John Burgess

    where does 'rent boy' fall into the (impolite) discussion?

    Yes, I wondered about that. The OED analysis is rent = 'money' ⇒ 'money acquired by criminal activity' ⇒ 'money for homosexual favours' (which were, of course criminal).

    Their earliest (and surprisingly recent) quote for rent boy suggests immediate pro-rata payment:

    1969 Jeremy 1 iii. 25/1 At the upper-end of the scene is the kept-boy who has little or nothing in common with the humbler ‘rent-boy’.

  49. I see that Oxford Dictionaries Online mark rent boy as British.

    Like the OED they give the definition 'young male prostitute'. But how young? The tabloids just recently made a fuss about a politician and a Brazilian 'rent boy' who seemed to be well out of his teens. I suspect the term is coming to mean any homosexual prostitute who is younger than his clients.

  50. Unexamined assumptions! I don't know why, but I always assumed that a rent boy went out to work in that particular way to pay his rent, and arguably that of his partner or pimp as well!

    Do Americans use the term "rent" for the money one pays to one's landlord, be they an individual or the Council or a Housing Association, for the right to live in a given place that one does not own?

  51. "Decedent" for a dead person - now that's a word I haven't met before. Is it widespread? I think we'd tend to say 'the deceased'.

    'Rent boy', by the way, is not just a description. It's definitely not a complimentary word.

  52. Mrs Redboots: Americans generally pay rent to private landlords. There isn't the same notion of housing associations, and 'the projects'--the equivalent of council housing--are mostly an urban phenomenon and just never provided as much housing in the US as councils have (done) in the UK.

  53. Annabel, Dru

    I had much the same assumption as you, Annabel, but the OED case is persuasive. Rent in this sense seems to be older than rent boy.

    The tabloid, Dru, use the term rent boy quite extensively. But not, I think, as a more pejorative wording that the alternatives. Rather it's short and direct. Any prejudice conveyed by the reference is not down to the words used.

    The only objective term I can think of is young male sex worker. That's just not how tabloids write.

    The term used to conjure up a picture of a teenage runaway surviving on the streets, but usage seems to have broadened out.

  54. @ Lynne - but is the money one pays for one's accommodation known as "rent" or "the rent" in the USA, as it is here, or is a different term used?

  55. @Mrs. Redboots: Yes, the money you pay your landlord is "rent."

    @John Burgess: There is a key difference between lay-away purchases and those made on the installment plant (or rent to own). For the former, the buyer only gets possession of their purchase once they have paid the full amount. The store sets aside (or "lays away," which sounds rather British to me, although I suppose it isn't) the item so that they won't sell out before the buyer has pungled up the total amount. (Is "pungle up" more common in British than American usage? The phrase comes naturally to me, but I don't think I know anyone else who uses it.)

  56. My blues records are full of references to room rent and house rent. Is that general AmE, or a feature of Black English present or past?

  57. I've never heard 'pungle up'. Is it an idiolect or familiolect?

  58. @Dru: I don't know where I picked it up, but nobody in my family used it. I was posting from home before, but at work I have OED access, and it says gives pungle < Spanish póngale put it (sc. the money) down, and all the early citations (going back to 1851) are American. It appears in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, so that may be where I learned it.

  59. @Dru: Even in the USA, I wouldn't expect to hear "decedent" anywhere outside the context of inheritance law.

  60. Hire purchase, the installment plan, rent-to-own and layaway may be distinguished thus:

    In hire purchase, the ownership remains with the seller until the purchase price is fully paid.

    In the installment plan, the ownership transfers immediately, but the seller has a lien whereby they can repossess the object if the installments are not paid. There are a number of things you can still get on the installment plan, notably college tuition; you can also pay your back taxes in installments if the tax people agree.

    In rent to own, ownership does not pass to the buyer until a fixed time elapses and the buyer decides to do so: the object may be returned to the seller at any time before that without penalty. (There is no reason to fear buying something by accident.) What the buyer gets is basically a right to buy at a fixed price in the future, which fixed price is covered by installments.

    In layaway, both ownership and physical possession remain with the seller until the price is paid. This is is least risk for the seller, maximum risk for the buyer, because the buyer loses their money if they default.

    I live in cooperative housing, which is rather unusual in the U.S. but pretty common in NYC. This means that my apartment building is owned by a corporation in which I and the other inhabitants own shares. I don't pay rent as such; I pay a monthly maintenance fee for upkeep of the building, taxes, insurance, and prudent reserve. Most coop owners also pay their share of the building mortgage, but my building happens not to be mortgaged (it was formerly owned by the NYC government, from whom I rented my apartment). It is also a rule of my particular building that I can only sell my shares back to the corporation and not to any third party.

  61. John Cowan

    Thanks for the clear exposition.

    That lien in an instalment plan renders it practically the same in effect as a hire purchase agreement, despite the theoretical difference.

    In all the Furniture Man songs, the villain was sent to enforce that lien.

    It's not a word I've heard in BrE, even in law reports, but I do know the striking verse — in these close variants:

    I ain't going to state no color : but her front teeth crowned with gold
    She got a mortgage on my body : and a lien on my soul

    Now I got a brownskin girl : with her front tooth crowned with gold
    She got a lien on my body : and a mortgage on my soul

    She ain't good-looking : she got two teeth crowned with gold
    Got a lien on her body : got a mortgage on her soul

  62. This comment has been removed by the author.

  63. There are some tangents on this discussion thread, but Ted's remarks about "estates" remind me that England and Scotland are also "separated by a common language": what is a "(housing) estate" in England, is a "(housing) scheme" in Scotland, where you will hear phrases like "she stays on the scheme" meaning "she lives in that estate". Both of them could be renting, of course.

  64. Simon

    I've heard talk of schemes in Glasgow, but never in Edinburgh.

    My instincts are not reliable since I'm English and only in recent decades have I lived in Edinburgh. So I searched the online archive of the Edinburgh Evening Post. Almost till the end, my instinct was confined. Scheme was used:

    • as pretty much a synonym of project — often collocated with pilot. Some of these schemes/projects were for future housing, which is presumably how the words came to mean actual housing in the US and Glasgow.

    • as a new regulated arrangement, generally ale ring the power structure between some authority and the people it deals with. Some such schemes give added powered to the authority, some to the punter.

    • The very last article in the search wrote of Trainspotting being set in grim, gritty and grotesque schemes, deprived dens awash with crime, abuse and poverty which until then, no-one had really cared to write about.

    Could it be that scheme has become a pejorative term outside (ScE outwith) some but not all cities.? That's what seems to have happened to tenement, which is a perfectly respectable term here is Edinburgh.

  65. Sorry! My spellchecker is merciless.

    Two serious corrections:

    my instinct was confined = my instinct was confirmed

    ale ring the power structure = altering the power structure

  66. David,
    my experience was mainly 30 years ago on the West side of the country, but Wikipedia confirms it in the second headline paragraph here:


    So someone else is obviously familiar with this usage.
    I can hear it in my head now as a very curt word that takes about half the time to say as the English word "scheme".

  67. I'm not familiar with 'scheme' to mean a housing estate, but would regard 'project' to describe an estate of public or housing association housing as a definite North American marker. In English-English usage a project is something that you, an organisation or whatever has in mind to do, 'we've got a project to open a chain of shops in the West Midlands', 'the University has a project to develop courses for foreign students', or even, 'my pet project for this year is to get a new car'.

  68. Dru - that's still the primary meaning of the word in American English, too.

  69. In Scottish English you also get the perjorative "schemie"/"scheme-y" (I'm not sure how to write it) meaning a person from a scheme (with the implication being youths of limited prospects out to cause trouble/up to no good.

  70. "Scheme" for housing estate or project:
    I came across this usage in County Durham in 1965.

  71. Two BrE usages: the hired hand - temporary help on the land or perhaps as a garden labourer. Could have been taken on at a 'hiring fair' as described earlier - also known as 'mop fairs' since servants might take with them an indication of their trade, such as a mop, shepherd's crook, etc.
    And 'lay-away' is still used in Britain when buying knitting wool; the shop will retain a few balls of wool for you so that your garment is all of the same dye batch.

  72. The more general sense of scheme is highly pejorative in NAmE: it means plot, not plan. Government schemes are generally about licensing something or taking away benefits/rights.

  73. John Cowan

    The more general sense of scheme is highly pejorative in NAmE: it means plot, not plan.

    And yet there's this verse from Can't Get Started:

    You're so supreme, lyrics I write of you
    Scheme just for a sight of you
    Dream both day and night of you
    And what good does it do?

    And from the Taft Blues Concordance:

    I got to find me a scheme : to get my gal all to herself
    Because I'm a fool about that woman : don't want nobody else

    For everything : he's got a scheme
    I like the way : he whips my cream
    My man is : such a handy man

  74. US law loves to use "schemes" and "devices" to refer to bad things. For example:

    Whoever ... falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact ... shall be fined or imprisoned.

  75. I wonder if there was a shift in the US from hiring things to renting them. In a bank I frequent near Atlantic City there is a mural of an old Atlantic City (I presume) beach which, I somehow only noticed today, has a sign that reads "Bathing suits for hire, 25 cents". Aside from the language, I find it strange that people used to rent (or hire) bathing suits. I hope they washed them well.

  76. Michael Palin on the Monty Python Search For The Holy Grail home video, well in the extras he goes to Doune Castle. That was the castle they used for Camelot. It's a tourist trap now. If you go there and forget to bring some hollowed out coconut halves to pretend you have are riding a horse, they have a set under the counter that you can rent. So Michael says "So you can hire these coconuts!" This was my first exposure to this term. Then a British guy on an Area 51 discussion board, of all places, describes his trek out to a mountain top to see Area 51 in Nevada. He rented a car and drove it all the way out to the dusty unpaved wilderness. He said, "I wonder what the gentleman at the car hire firm would say if he saw me all the way out here!" Car hire firm sounds so much more posh than the humble car rental agency!

  77. BrE, Scot, mid 60s. In “Diary of a Nobody” (published in book form 1892) the Pooters bought their piano on “the three years’ plan”. For all of my life, the term “housing schemes” has been used all over Scotland. “Schemie” I only started to hear in the 1990s, although I have lived and worked in England for over 40 years, so it could have been common for longer. The term is used as a perjorative by those who don’t live on schemes, and with wry pride by those who do. I have also heard daytime tv called “scemie telly” (also reality shows).


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)