The Grammarphobia Blog

Does the prefix “re-” have a dark side?

Q: Why do so many negative words begin with the prefix “re-”? For example: “reprehensible,” “reprove,” “reproach”?

A: Is there something evil lurking in the heart of the prefix “-re”? No, not really. And it doesn’t necessarily have the same meaning from word to word.

In Latin, the original sense of “re-” was “back” or “backwards,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

But in English, the OED adds, “in the large number of words in which it occurs it shows various shades of meaning.”

Here are those various senses, and you’ll notice some overlapping.

(1) Back from a point reached, or back to or towards a starting point. This meaning can be seen in “reproach” which in Anglo-Norman meant “to recall (something disagreeable to someone),” the OED says.

This sense is also in “reflect,” “reduce,” “recede,” “recur,” “refer,” “resilient,” “reluctant,” “refuge,” “retract,” “revoke,” “recall,” “resonate,” “repel,” “recuse,” “rescind,” “remove,” “respect” (literally, to look back), “remit” (to send back), and “reclaim.”

(2) Back to the original position. This sense is present in “restitution,” “receive,” “redeem,” and “resume.”

(3) Again or anew. This meaning is reflected in “recreate,” “renovate,” “reform,” “regenerate,” “retract,” and the many words that have to do with repetition (like “repeat,” “rearrange,” “reignite,” and many more).

(4) An undoing of some previous action (much like the negative prefix “un-”). Thus we have words like “resign,” “reveal,” “reprove” and “reprobate” (both of those last two are descended from the Latin reprobare, to reject or disapprove).

(5) Back in a place. This sense, the OED says, can be seen in words like “reprehend” (and “reprehensible”), “retain,” “relegate,” “refrain,” “reserve,” “remain,” “reside,” “relinquish,” and even “rest” (from the Latin restare).

As the OED points out, the meaning of “re-” isn’t always clearly defined, and in many cases new meanings have arisen and obscured the originals.

That’s only to be expected, because words with the “re-” prefix have been in English since the early 1200s. And words can undergo lots of changes in 800 years.

Some of the earliest “re-” prefixed words include “recluse” (adjective), “remission,” “recoil,” “record” (verb), “relic,” “relief,” “religion,” and “religious.”

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