Re: re-

Who could pass up a title like today’s? The re before the colon means ‘with regard to, in the matter of,’ and it introduces the subject of today’s post, which is the unrelated prefix re-. That prefix existed in Latin, where it added the sense ‘(back) again’ to a verb. Both Spanish and English have many verbs beginning with re-, as you can easily verify by looking at the re- section in a dictionary of either language. Sometimes, from the notion of ‘over and over again,’ the re- conveys the sense ‘very,’ as in Spanish resabido ‘well-known’ and English renowned, which is etymologically ‘very much named.’

Spanish inherited re- directly from Latin, but in English the borrowed prefix re- is also a living one, meaning that it can be applied to existing verbs, including those of Anglo-Saxon or other non-Latin origin, to make new compounds. For example, a soldier can re-up, meaning ‘reenlist,’ in the army. Someone can blog and someone else can reblog. At the same time, there’s still occasionally—and unpredictably—resistance to using the Latin-derived prefix re- with an English verb of long standing: although English says redo, recall, and remake, it doesn’t say *resit, *refeel, *rebe, or *rego.

Sometimes we can remove the re- from what is etymologically a compound and be left with a verb that exists on its own. For instance, Spanish has resurgir and surgir, reproducir and producir, rellenar and llenar, rehacer and hacer, rematar and matar. Even in pairs like those, however, the semantics may be somewhat different, as in matar ‘to kill’ but rematar ‘to finish off.’ In plenty of other cases, however, removing re- from a verb leaves something that’s not a real verb. We have resistir/resist but not *sistir/*sist, retaliar/retailate but not *taliar/*taliate.

The situation is even more complicated than what I’ve outlined here, but this gives you the basic story. You can rechazar or reject it if you like, but while you might somehow make the case that you could chazar it in Spanish, you certainly can’t *ject it in English.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Michael Cook
    May 27, 2015 @ 03:40:23

    In examinations one can often “re-sit”


  2. shoreacres
    May 27, 2015 @ 22:08:11

    At first glance, I thought you’d taken a turn toward Māori: with Rere being like poroporo.

    One of the most popular new(er) words seems to follow a pattern you mentioned above: “repurpose.”

    I was going to say the removal of “re” leaves a word that isn’t a verb, but it appears that, at one time, it was. I found these examples:

    “I have not purposed to misrepresent this boy in any way, for what little indignation he excited in me soon passed and left nothing behind it but compassion.” —Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad, 1880

    “The child then explained that they had left the races on the first day, and were travelling to the next town on that road, where they purposed to spend the night.” —Charles Dickens, The Old Curiosity Shop, 1841

    It looks like purpose-the-verb turned into “propose.”


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 27, 2015 @ 22:36:24

      No, no duplication (except that I’ve just given one, an action that isn’t a no-no), but you’ve indeed hit on the fact that the verb purpose is a doublet of propose, which is much more frequent now in that role. Along similar lines, my impression is that repurpose is much more common a verb than purpose. And someone who gets turned down one or more times can always repropose and hope for a happier outcome.


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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