Polishing our understanding of a useful little prefix

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

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 buffle (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.

Buff as a color is variously described as a medium to dark tan. As American literature buffs (more on that sense of the word in a moment) may recall, when Washington Irving's hero Rip Van Winkle wakes up after his long sleep, one of the clues that he is in a different world is that the sign before the familiar local tavern no longer pictures King George III in red but George Washington in blue and buff.

Now for the puffy side of things: An obsolete verb buff used to mean "to make a dull sound when struck."It lives on in buffer (that which absorbs a blow) and buffet (the verb, not the all-you-can-eat noun) as well as rebuff.

The Online Etymology Dictionary traces the verb buffet through Old French back to buffe, a blow, "probably echoic of the sound of something soft being hit." Not quite the pow! of the comic books, in other words.

Imagine someone wearing a down jacket whom you strike, not all that forcefully, across the midsection with your forearm. Buff! That's the little video clip embedded in rebuff.

If you're a fan of classical music, you know that comic opera is known in Italian as opera buffa.The English word buffoon, or clown, is a relative, and both are rooted in the idea of "puffing" – ineffectual huffing and puffing that doesn't quite blow the house down.

But what about buff in the sense of movie buff, or Civil War buff, or American literature buff? The original buffs in this sense were people who, evidently for entertainment, liked to go watch buildings burn down. This was in New York City in the 1820s, before the Internet or even television. The term is said to be derived from the buff-colored coats of the volunteer fire department. This sounds like a bit of a lexicographical leap. But it's what the sources say.

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