The Grammarphobia Blog

A reprehensible posting

Q: If something is reprehensible, can we reprehend it? Or do we “reprimand” it?  If so, is it reprimandable?

A: Yes, we can (and do!) “reprehend.” And if we “reprehend” something, that means we find it “reprehensible.”

We don’t use the verb “reprehend” much anymore, which is too bad. It’s an expressive word, meaning to reprimand, reprove, find fault with, censure, condemn, or disapprove.

“Reprehend” entered English in the 1300s. It ultimately comes from a classical Latin verb, reprehendere, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as meaning “to hold back, to retrieve, to censure, to find fault with, to rebuke, to refute.”

That Latin verb is also the source of the Latin adjective reprehensibilis (open to censure, blameworthy), from which “reprehensible” is derived.

The English adjective, says the OED, means “deserving of reprehension, censure, or rebuke; reprovable; morally detestable.”

It was first recorded, according to the dictionary’s citations, in the Wycliffe Bible of 1384: “for he was reprehensyble, or worthi for to be reprouyd [reproved].”

Here’s a more up-to-date citation, from a 2001 issue of the New York Review of Books: “Terrorism is reprehensible and unacceptable.”

A closer look at the Latin reprehendere shows that it consists of the prefix re- plus prehendere (to grasp, seize, or catch), which is the source of the now rare English verbs “prehend” (to seize, arrest, or grasp) and “prend” (to take, understand, or comprehend).

The English words “reprehend,” “comprehend,” and “apprehend” all have similar Latin origins, and have to do with seizing, grasping, or laying hold of something—whether physically or mentally.

By this time you’ve probably noticed a recurring theme here—a “hend” keeps cropping up.

As the OED explains, the Latin prehendere consists of the prefix pre- plus a second element. And this second element comes from same Indo-European base as our Germanic verb “get” (reconstructed as hed), with a nasal “n” thrown in.

You can hear an Indo-European echo in the Old English verb gehende, which means near or convenient—literally, “at hand.”

You also asked about “reprimand.” It first showed up, both as a noun and as a verb, in the 17th century. Its lineage goes back to the Latin reprimere (to hold in check), source of the 14th-century English word “repress.”

“Reprimandible” isn’t in any dictionary we’ve checked, perhaps because so many other words might fit the bill: “blameworthy,” “censurable,” “contemptible,” “discreditable,” “disreputable,” “reproachful,” etc.

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