The Grammarphobia Blog

Does Betsy DeVos need a rethink?

Q: As a follow-up to your recent post about “Heavens to Betsy,” what do you think of the controversy over our education secretary’s use of the word “rethink” on Twitter?

A: We see from the Twitter comments that some people were bothered by Betsy DeVos’s use of “rethink” as a noun, and others by her faux dictionary entry, which mixes together parts of the real Merriam-Webster.com entries for “rethink” and “school.”

Let’s begin with her use of “rethink” as a noun. In her March 13, 2008, tweet, she writes: “It’s time we pursue a paradigm shift, a fundamental reorientation—a rethink.”

The use of “rethink” as a noun strikes us as the kind of usage favored by a bureaucrat with a tin ear. However, editors at standard dictionaries don’t seem to be bothered by it.

The noun “rethink” is listed without comment (that is, as standard English) in three of the four American dictionaries we checked, and in four of the five British dictionaries.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged, for example, defines the noun as “an act or instance of rethinking.” Merriam-Webster.com lists different pronunciations for the verb (re-THINK) and the noun (RE-think).

Oxford Dictionaries online, in both its US and UK versions, defines the noun as a “reassessment, especially one that results in changes being made,” and gives this example: “a last-minute rethink of their tactics.”

The Oxford English Dictionary, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, has a fuller definition of the noun: “An act of rethinking, esp. one that leads to change; a reappraisal, a reassessment; (occasionally) a result of this.”

All four OED citations for the usage are from British sources. The earliest cites the Sept. 12, 1958, issue of the Times Literary Supplement: “Then came Mr. Khrushchev’s speech at the Twentieth Party Congress and close behind it the great Communist re-think.”

The next Oxford example for the noun is from the Aug. 8, 1968, issue of the weekly New Scientist: “The need for a widespread rethink on attitudes in science education, particularly at university level.”

The verb “rethink” is much older, dating from the early 1500s. The dictionary’s first example is from Shyppe of Fooles, Henry Watson’s 1509 translation of Das Narrenschiff, a 1494 satire by the German writer Sebastian Brant:

“Thynke and rethynke … whan thou takest ye ordre of preest hode, for thou ought not to receyue the ordre withoute consyderynge of dyuers thynges.”

As for the education secretary’s tweeted dictionary entry (verb · \ ˈrē- ˌthiŋk ˈskül\), we find it a confusing pastiche.

A typical dictionary entry for a verb has a pronouncer and a definition followed by an example. She has no definition, and she uses a phrase (“rethink school”) as a pronouncer for the verb.

Ms. DeVos adds to the confusion by using a Merriam-Webster pronouncer for the noun (ˈrē- ˌthiŋk), with its primary accent on the first syllable (RE-think), instead of an M-W pronouncer for the verb (ˌrē-ˈthiŋk), with the accent on the second syllable (re-THINK).

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