Thursday, January 05, 2006

Redux redux

Making my usual ill-founded attempt to be clever, I titled my last post Mirabilis redux. See what I did there? Mirabilis is a Latin word (meaning 'wonderful' or 'astonishing,' as Christine explains), so I thought I'd throw in a bit more Latin to go with it.

I admit that I know next to nothing about Latin (I've never studied it, using the excuse that I was in too love with Greek to give it proper attention), but I was pretty sure redux was a Latin word that had been assimilated intact into English. So I was puzzled not to find it in any of the dictionaries or 'glossaries of common foreign phrases' in our house, and I was downright gobsmacked to check Wiktionary and find it described as 'a slang term which seems to have circulated in the early 1990s. Origin unknown.'

But wait! If that's true, what was
John Dryden doing writing a poem called Astrea Redux in 1660? Or Anthony Trollope writing a novel called Phineas Redux in 1874? For that matter, what was John Updike doing writing Rabbit Redux in 1971? I decided to investigate further. I looked up redux in the University of Notre Dame's Latin dictionary and grammar aid, and there it was: 'Redux -ducis adj.: act. [bringing back , restoring]; pass. [brought back, returned].'

So the Wiktionary editor had no clue; that's hardly news. But the question remains: Why wasn't the word in any of our real-life dictionaries? Our dictionaries are a few decades old, so the fact that they don't include the word suggests that it wasn't used frequently in English until fairly recently. Searches online seem to bear this out: New dictionaries have the word, old dictionaries don't. (This
guide from Lancaster University illustrates the up-to-dateness of one dictionary by noting that it includes redux, which the site's author describes as 'American English.')

My guess is that Dryden deliberately gave his poem a Latin title, that Trollope named his novel in imitation of Dryden, that Updike named his in imitation of one or the other, and that the word then became popular because of Updike's use.

I'll be able to test this theory next week, when the online version of the
Oxford English Dictionary is briefly free as part of their tie-in with the BBC series Balderdash and Piffle. (Thanks, Language Hat!)

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