Question: What is "loan-shifting"?

FairMormon Answers Wiki Table of Contents

Question: What is "loan-shifting"?

The term "loan-shifting" or "semantic extension" refers to a change in the meaning of an established native word in order to extend the number of things to which it applies

Loan-shifting has occurred throughout history. For example, when the Greeks first encountered a large unfamiliar animal in the Nile, they named it hippopotamus, which in ancient Greek means "river horse."[1]:10 Anyone would agree that a hippo bears little resemblance to a horse, yet the Greeks chose to extend the use of the word "horse" to describe this new creature.

Likewise, when the conquistadors arrived in the New World, reintroducing the horse to the Americas, the natives had problems classifying these new animals. The reintroduced Spanish horse was unfamiliar to the Native Americans and so it became associated with either the deer or the tapir. When Cortes and his horses arrived,, the Aztecs simply called the unfamiliar horses "deer."[2]:10 One Aztec messenger reported to Montezuma:

"Their deer carry them on their backs wherever they wish to go. These deer, our lord, are as tall as the roof of a house."[3]

Some of the Maya called the European horses and donkeys "tapirs" because they looked so similar

Some of the Maya called the European horses and donkeys "tapirs" because, at least according to one observer, they looked so similar.[4]:134

The Spaniards likewise expanded the definition of some of their animal categories. They called the native tapir an "ass."[5]

If we find such loan-shifting in verifiable New World sources when the Native Americans and the Spaniards encountered unfamiliar animals, why do some critics think it is impossible that the Nephites would have acted any differently when they encountered unfamiliar items or had to identify different items with a limited written vocabulary? Perhaps the reformed Egyptian word for "horse" was expanded to include other animals that were in some way horse-like. The most likely animals to have been included in the expanded definition of the Book of Mormon "horse" are the deer and the tapir.

"Loan-shifting" simply means that the idea is plausible

This does not mean that loan-shifting must be the answer in this case. What it does mean, however, is that the idea is plausible, and most who mock it evidence little sign that they have understood the argument, or can represent it fairly. They resort, instead, to the logical fallacy of appeal to ridicule.

One of the items which some love to mock is the idea that the "horse" referred to in the Book of Mormon might have actually been another animal, such as a deer or tapir. It is important to remember that the Book of Mormon is not an ancient text--it's a nineteenth-century translation of an ancient text. When we, as modern readers, read texts from ancient or foreign cultures, we need to have an understanding of what the ancient or foreign author was attempting to convey. Some of the things that seem "plain" to us are not so "plain" upon further investigation or once we understand the culture that produced the text.

If 6th century B.C. Egyptians, or people who wrote with an Egyptian script, had lived in the Americas and had left records, they easily could have included the deer, tapir, and perhaps other animals into their expanded definition of the term "horse."

The Book of Mormon never mentions horses pulling chariots or being ridden

A few more things to keep in mind:

  • The Book of Mormon does not mention horses pulling chariots. The BOM does not mention horses being ridden. Horses are mentioned with chariots several times. Assuming that they were present in order to pull the chariots must be extrapolated.
  • The Old Testament and New Testament do mention horses being ridden. The D&C mentions that horses can be ridden.
  • Joseph knew much about horses yet in the Book of Mormon, they are not used in any way he was familiar with. They are not mentioned as being used for work, transportation or battle.
  • Joseph likely knew, as everyone did, that the European horse was introduced by the Spanish. Why, then, did he make such a clumsy error in his forgery?
  • Critics of the Church falsely attributes the possibility of the word "horse" as a description of a similar animal to Joseph mistranslating the text. No one claimed that Joseph "mistranslated" the term deer for horse. The accurate position is that early Nephites may have labeled deer "horses." This conjecture is based on the fact that The Amerindians called horses "deer" when they first saw them.


  1. John A. Tvedtnes, "Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology by Brent Lee Metcalfe," FARMS Review of Books 6/1 (1994): 8–50.
  2. John A. Tvedtnes, "Review of New Approaches to the Book of Mormon: Explorations in Critical Methodology by Brent Lee Metcalfe," FARMS Review of Books 6/1 (1994): 8–50. off-site
  3. See
  4. Matthew Roper, "Unanswered Mormon Scholars (Review of Answering Mormon Scholars: A Response to Criticism Raised by Mormon Defenders)," FARMS Review of Books 9/1 (1997): 87–145. [ off-site]
  5. John L. Sorenson, An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, Utah : Deseret Book Co. ; Provo, Utah : Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1996 [1985]), 293-294.