Jan. 4, 2010

Rest and Re-creation

Reading Little Dorrit the other day, I came across a sentence describing Mr. Pancks as a man who rarely “appeared to relax from his cares, and to recreate himself by going anywhere or saying anything without a pervading object” (ch. XXV).

This obsolete sense of recreate, meaning to refresh or energize, obviously shares a common root with our noun recreation. The American Heritage Dictionary helpfully explains that there is a distinction in pronunciation which is preserved in the surviving noun. When you mean recreate in the sense of “to create again,” the first syllable is pronounced reek; when you mean “to take a break from work in order to play,” the first syllable is pronounced wreck.

I have never heard anyone use the verb recreate in this sense. The OED lists a couple of oddball examples from the 1970s (e.g. “The President plans to recreate on Labor Day,” from something called Verbatim magazine in 1978), but for the most part the usage seems to have lapsed by the end of the 1800s. Today the word is as dead as Dickens.

The root in both cases is the Latin creare, “to create.” I quit Latin after three years — that is, as soon as the Roxbury Latin School let me — but a quick web search turns up a few alternative definitions for creare: “to elect to an office” or, of parents, “to bear or beget.” Nothing about play, refreshment, or relaxation.

All of which is a long, pedantic way of saying, What a strange, awful idea that your work would destroy you so that you would need to withdraw from it in order to be literally re-created. Personally I don’t feel this way. It is precisely my work that energizes and “creates” me, and I hate to be dragged away from it for vacation or anything else. (I’m with Cormac McCarthy on this one.)

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