Thursday, June 3, 2010

Re: Re and Re

Crossword puzzle constructors can take almost any verb and put re- in a front of it and say it means to do whatever it is again.  Rerun is a frequent puzzle entry, and of course it means “to show on TV again.”  Reshoot is “to film again,” rename “to dub again,” rewrite “to pen again,” etc.  I’ve even seen some stretches of usage like relook, respend, and restand.

There are other “re”-words, though, that don’t mean to do something for the second time.  Reply, repent, recline, regurgitate, and rescind, for example, do not mean “to ply, to pent, to cline, to gurgitate, and to scind” again.

The difference is in the prefix re-, which has two meanings.  The commonly used one simply means “again.”  But another Latin meaning is “back in a former state or position,” and words starting with his kind of re came to us from Latin with the prefix already in place. Reply, for example, doesn’t mean “to ply again,” but comes to us intact from the Latin replicare meaning “to fold back.”

Some words can have both kinds of re- attached to them and mean two different things, as in the story of the upholsterer who accidentally fell into his machine and is now completely recovered.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou will probably never be completely recovered from whatever ails him, but he keeps trying to rid himself of toxins such as the following:

            “Your test score is a B,”
             The old professor barked.
            “But it really rates a C,”
             He suddenly remarked.

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