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Polishing our understanding of a useful little prefix

The Monitor's language columnist shows how verbs starting with "re" aren't all alike.

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One of our fine newsweeklies recently published a sentence that was quite thought-provoking – but not in the way its editors presumably intended.

The sentence read, in part, "Mr. Obama would clearly do a lot more to rebuff America's image than Mr. McCain ever could."It was obvious from the context that what was meant was to "to polish America's image," or to shine it up again, as we might say colloquially. Someone was thinking that re + buff = to buff anew.

But re + buff is already in use to convey another concept, that of pushing back or rejecting. Arguably that's what some of Barack Obama's opponents think he's likely to do to America. But you can't make a word mean something it doesn't want to.

"Re" is a useful prefix in English, typically signaling "again." Our dictionary – Webster's New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition – goes on for pages and pages with "re" verbs whose meanings are so self-explanatory that they are simply listed in the bottom margin: relearn, rename, repaint.

But "re" also means "back," and that's what it means in rebuff.

Buff shows up as part of a number of words in English, and they can be divided into two main groups: the leathery ones and the puffy ones. The Medieval French (wild ox) came into English as buffe leather, and eventually just buff, to describe a light-colored leather, sometimes used to polish things. Hence the trope of a new president "buffing" America's image, as if he were the kid next door with that red sports car and a good-sized piece of chamois. "In the buff" is a jocular reference to human skin as leather.


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