The Grammarphobia Blog

The repurpose driven life

Q: It seems to me that “repurpose” came onto the scene when “utilize” lost all distinction from “use.” It has been my understanding that you “use” a doorstop to keep a door open, but “utilize” a heavy book for the same purpose. I’m wondering if “repurpose” arose to fill the void left by the dilution of “utilize.” Any thoughts?

A: You may be right, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “repurpose,” which it traces back to 1984, means “to convert or adapt (esp. something holding electronic data) for use in a different format; to use for a different purpose.”

Etymologically it’s formed from “re” and the verb “purpose,” which means to have a purpose or (and this is a rare and archaic meaning) “to be designed for some purpose; to be intended to do something.”

The last part of the definition of “repurpose” (“to use for a different purpose”) is somewhat similar to the now rather obscure one you mention for “utilize.” I wrote about “use” vs. “utilize” once before on the blog, and the difference between them isn’t as large as you think.:

While most of us now regard “use” and “utilize” as identical, “utilize” has another meaning that appears in English less frequently these days. This sense of “utilize” means to put something to use in a practical or profitable way. As you suggest, you might “utilize” a heavy book as a doorstop.

You ask whether “repurpose” arose to fill the gap left by that less frequently seen meaning of “utilize.” I’m doubtful. There seems to me to be a slight difference between this old sense of “utilize” and the newer “repurpose.”

I don’t think you’d “repurpose” the book you prop against the door. The book still is a book; it hasn’t been converted to anything else. It may be serving temporarily as a doorstop, but it hasn’t been changed materially. On the other hand, if you “repurpose” an old mill into condominiums, the original is lost.

Although the OED‘s definition of “repurpose” does include “to use for a different purpose,” it seems to me that most of us believe something that’s “repurposed” has changed in some manner.

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