Regarding 're': Let's think again

Why doesn't 're-log-in' work as well as 'log in again'?

The other night at the YMCA, I heard the English language evolving a little bit. (I was about to say I caught a glimpse of the language evolving, but "glimpse" is too firmly rooted in a metaphor of vision. Note to self: What's an aural equivalent of "glimpse"?)

In any case, a woman was trying to get the gym's computer to accept the data on her workout, and the computer wasn't cooperating. One of the young staff helpfully suggested, "You'll have to re-log-in."

Hmm, I thought as I pedaled away on my exercise bike nearby. Shouldn't that have been "log in again"? It certainly would have been out of my mouth. But out of the mouth of the young staffer it was "re-log-in."

And so it went into the ears of the woman having trouble with the computer – someone who, I had gathered from our brief conversation earlier, is Chinese. Her English was quite good but her intonations were not those of a native speaker.

This is how language evolves. The Chinese woman hears "re-log-in" and files it away, probably unconsciously, in some folder in her head of "expressions I have heard from native speakers" and is likely to use it again.

I don't mean to sound too resigned, though. If she tries to get away with this in any piece of writing I get to edit, she'll be firmly advised that "log in again" is preferable.

What's wrong with "re-log-in"? For a start, there's some value in sticking with established terms rather than improvisations or coinages. I found about 142,000 hits for "relogin" on the Web but no dictionaries would claim it, with or without hyphens.

"You'll have to log in again" scans better and packs a bigger punch, with the stress on the final syllable. "Re-log-in" sounds awkward and mechanical.

"Log in" may be a relatively new term, but it's also a phrasal verb, like "go down" or "come back." The "re" prefix, widely used in English to signify "back" or "again," is of Latin origin. It doesn't quite work with phrasal verbs.

"If he's not in his office this morning, I'll re-go down to see him after lunch"? No. "I'll go back down to see him."

Sometimes there's a nuance between a "re" form and an "again" form. For instance, the go-getter in the boss's office says, "We have to rethink our marketing campaign in light of the presentation from our consultant." He means literally, we have to think anew about our campaign.

Now compare this from his frustrated colleague: "If you think I'm going to do all the prep work and be prepared to cover your flank in the big meeting with the boss, you'd better think again."

In this case, the implication is that the person the speaker is addressing is completely wrong; The real message isn't just "You need some new ideas," as in the case above. Rather, it's "You just don't get how really ripped I am."

"Relook" is another "re" form heard occasionally that makes me wonder, Why not "look again"? Or "review"? Ah, but review is less literally "looking again." It now means primarily to critique.

Some fussbudgets might object to a Latin prefix attached to an Anglo-Saxon word, as in rewrite. But "Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite," goes back to the days of rewrite desks at newspapers – which go back a long time.

My favorite example in this category is "remacadamized." It's made up of the Latin "re" for "again," the Celtic "mac" for "son of," the familiar Hebrew name "Adam," the Greek suffix "ize" to signal a verb, and the English "ed" to indicate a past tense.

William Shetter, professor emeritus at Indiana University, comments, "[W]e need to concede that our remacadamized is a bit of a curiosity. You could almost call it a tiny 'museum' in which we can see five different languages represented in a single word."

When I catch myself going into fussbudget mode over Latin prefixes tacked onto Anglo-Saxon words, I remember "remacadamized."

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