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You type recreate, I type re-create

Posted by Jan Freeman, keep until April December 5, 2008 05:58 PM
Exercising or recreating?

Should we maintain the orthographic distinction between re-create (to create again) and recreate (have fun)? Editrix wants to keep the hyphen, despite the lack of support from her reference library, and she's posted a poll where readers can vote.

I infer from the discussion that I was probably already a copy editor when Editrix was riding her tricycle. Because I was taught, during my usage indoctrination, that recreate meaning "play, amuse oneself" was a low sort of verb, if not actually forbidden.

I remember that at some point it became OK, but I must not have ever looked it up, because it turns out it's not -- as I vaguely assumed -- a back formation from recreation; in fact, it's older than the other recreate, and its current "have fun" sense dates to 1587!

But the OED has one clue to my instructors' prejudice: It labels recreate "Now chiefly U.S." A good many words that were dropped by the Brits, but retained by us colonials, suffered a temporary loss of status among educated Americans; maybe recreate was one of them.

My search among the usage books, however, hasn't done much to validate my memory. Nobody denounces recreate "play"; the prissy Wilson Follett, who's still proselytizing (in 1966) for the shall/will distinction, says of recreate merely -- this one's for you, Editrix -- that the hyphen must stay: "Only the hyphen can distinguish re-create (create anew) from recreate (amuse, divert)."

But thanks to Paul Brians, I know my animus wasn't just a fantasy. At his Common Errors in English website, Brians is still keeping the faith: "While we’re at it, 'recreate' does not mean 'to engage in recreation.' If you play basketball, you may be exercising, but you’re not recreating."

I no longer believe it, but I sure was glad to find it.

Photo: Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

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Rules and realities of English usage from Boston Globe Ideas columnist Jan Freeman.
Jan Freeman, a former Boston Globe editor, has been writing the weekly column “The Word” since 1997. E-mail her at

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