Q: I’m curious about the verbs “furbish” and “refurbish.” My dictionary includes both, and says either can mean to renovate. So why do we usually use “refurbish” in that sense when “furbish” would do nicely?
A: Both “furbish” and “refurbish” have meant to polish or renovate for hundreds of years, but “refurbish” is far more popular today. Up until the 1930s, though, “furbish” was more popular, and it’s made somewhat of a comeback in recent years.
As the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary explains, “ ‘Furbish’ was borrowed into English in the 14th century from Anglo-French furbiss-, a distant relative of an Old High German word meaning ‘to polish.’
“In its earliest uses, ‘furbish’ also meant ‘to polish,’ but it developed an extended sense of ‘renovate’ shortly before English speakers created ‘refurbish’ with the same meaning in the 17th century. These days ‘refurbish’ is the more common of the two words, although ‘furbish’ does continue to be used.”
A search with Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks the appearance of words or phrases in digitized books, indicates that the use of “refurbish” rose sharply in the second half of the 20th century as the use of “furbish” fell. However, “furbish” rose a bit in popularity in the early 21st century while “refurbish” fell.
Getting back to your question, we’d recommend using “refurbish.” The verb “furbish” is likely to raise eyebrows these days and send readers to their dictionaries.
As for the etymology, the verb “furbish” originally meant to “remove rust from (a weapon, armour, etc.); to brighten by rubbing, polish, burnish,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The earliest OED example is from the Wyclife Bible of 1382: “The swerd is whettid and furbishid” (Ezekiel 21:9).
Two centuries later, Oxford says, “furbish” came to mean “to brush or clean up (anything faded or soiled); to give a new look to (an object either material or immaterial); to do or get up afresh, renovate, revive.”
Here’s the dictionary’s first example: “The Soule, which must be fayne to be, as it were, newfurbished” (from A Woorke Concerning the Trewnesse of the Christian Religion, a 1587 translation by Philip Sidney and Arthur Golding of a work by the French Protestant writer Philippe de Mornay).
When “refurbish” showed up in the early 17th century, according to the OED, it meant “to brighten or clean up” and then “to restore to good condition, to renovate; (now esp.) to repair and redecorate (a building, room, etc.).”
The earliest Oxford citation is from A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), compiled by Randall Cotgrave: “Refourbir, to refurbish, repolish.” The next example is more substantial:
“She made up but one Suit of Cloaths in a Year, and even that one she would get so neatly refurbished, that it would sometimes last her eighteen Months” (from Eliza Stanley’s 1736 translation of Histoire du Prince Titi, a novel by Thémiseul de Saint-Hyacinthe, pseudonym of the French freethinker Hyacinthe Cordonnier).