The Grammarphobia Blog

Repeat performance

Q: I was taught that “iterate” means repeat and “reiterate” means repeat again. But whenever I try to use the word “iterate” that way, everyone gives me a blank stare.

A: Some people insist that to “iterate” means to repeat, so to “reiterate” must mean to repeat more than once. But this is a case where it’s possible to be too literal.

“Iterate” and “reiterate” mean the same thing, according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.): to say or do again or repeatedly.

Obviously, as M-W’s Dictionary of English Usage points out, “reiterate” has “a kind of built-in redundancy.”

But the fact is that “iterate” is rarely used; the common word is “reiterate,” as I noted in a blog item I wrote about this a few years ago.

I’ll expand a little now on that entry. As it happens, “reiterate” is the older verb, in English at least, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The word is thought to have entered English around the year 1425, both as a verb (meaning to repeat an action or do it repeatedly) and as an adjective (meaning repeated).

In the mid-1500s, “reiterate” was first used in the modern sense of to repeat something said or asked. The first citation in the OED is from a 1560 English translation of a Latin religious commentary: “The nobles reiterat their sute.”

We got the word from the post-classical Latin reiterare, which the OED dates back to the sixth century.

Reiterare combined the prefix re and the classical Latin iterare (to do again, repeat, rehearse), which in turn came from the Latin iterum (again).

So if the word is redundant, we can blame post-classical Latin! This Latin redundancy, if you want to call it that, also survives in the French réitérer, the Spanish reiterar, and the Italian reiterare.

As for “iterate,” the OED says it was originally used in English as a participial adjective meaning “repeated.”

In this sense, according to OED citations, the word was first recorded in George Ripley’s The Compound of Alchymy (1471): “Hyt Multyplyeth by Iterat Fermentacion.” (“It multiplies by iterate fermentation.”)

The verb “iterate” entered English in 1533, when it was used to mean both (1) to do something over again, as in to repeat an experiment, and (2) to say something again or repeatedly. It came from the classical Latin iterare.

So yes, we do have one more word than we need in this case. But I see nothing wrong with using “reiterate” as in post-classical Latin and other languages – for both “repeat” and “repeat again.”

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