Reverberant thinking

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MSNBC headline: "Songbirds migrate faster than thought".

In case some alert editor modifies it:

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

In other thought-related news, Alec Marantz gave an interesting talk this afternoon at Penn on "Resultatives and re-resultatives", and during the question period, there was some discussion of the fact that none of the things that you can re-think (views, positions, etc.) can actually be thought in the first place.

For example, let's pick a few examples at random from today's news:

We may need to rethink our way of dealing with this problem.
…the weekend's fires "show that many communities need to rethink the notion of who lives in a bushfire zone …"
Mr Bush said any plan to rethink financial mechanisms should "preserve the foundations of democratic capitalism" …

None of these work without the re-:

*We may need to think our way of dealing with this problem.
*…the weekend's fires "show that many communities need to think the notion of who lives in a bushfire zone …"
*Mr Bush said any plan to think financial mechanisms should "preserve the foundations of democratic capitalism" …

After a moment's thought, I wasn't able to come up with any other verbs with this property, that you can re-VERB things that you can't VERB in the first place. But I bet that there are some out there.

[Update: I'm happy to see people having fun in the comments section, but I'm afraid that I didn't express myself very clearly. What I found interesting about "re-think" is that it's a case of re+VERB where the VERB exists as a free form, apparently the same word with the same basic meaning as in the re+VERB combination, but where you can talk about re+VERB-ing something that you can't felicitously talk about VERB-ing in the first place. Thus all the examples like remark, remind, retire, reneg, research, remunerate, etc., etc., are entirely irrelevant.  Likewise the discussion of cran-morphs and other sorts of bound morphemes. "Re-live" is more like it, though.

Many of the OED's early examples involve re-thinking things that can be thought, often explicitly – especially, of course, the intransitive cases:

1748 RICHARDSON Clarissa (1811) VII. 27 Think, my dear, and re-think.
1808 JANE AUSTEN Lett. (1884) I. 372, I cannot help thinking and re-thinking of your going to the island so heroically.
1853 LYNCH Self-Improv. vi. 148 You must think and observe; re-think and re-observe.

And the same is true for some more recent uses:

a1942 B. MALINOWSKI Sci. Theory of Culture (1944) iii. 19 At times the thinker does nothing else but to re-think..what the primitive might have or ought to have thought or felt under certain conditions.

But some examples certainly do involve re-thinking the (now) unthinkable:

a1700 KEN Edmund Poet. Wks. 1721 II. 163 All the pass'd Song distinctly he re-thought.
1957 Times Lit. Suppl. 6 Dec. 729/2 A summons, in effect, to the younger German historians, which only a few of them have heeded, to rethink the whole of Germany's recent past.
1973 Daily Tel. 28 Sept. 7/1 Mrs Thatcher last night promised to rethink methods of awarding grants to married women students.
1977 F. YOUNG in J. Hick Myth of God Incarnate ii. 30 In any attempt to rethink christological belief, the primacy of soteriology must be recognized.

And this is true in some cases where the thinking part is explicit as well:

1719 E. BAYNARD Health (1731) 2 To think, and re-think each Design.

Note that think itself had a now-obsolete use with direct objects, meaning "To meditate on, turn over in the mind, ponder over, consider":

13.. Cursor M. 24064 (Cott.), I thinc it euer and ai.
1382 WYCLIF 1 Tim. iv. 15 Thenk thou thes thingis.
1486 Bk. St. Albans eijb, Thynke what I say my sonne nyght and day.
1605 SHAKES. Macb. II. ii. 33 These deeds must not be thought After these wayes.

A residue of this remains in the cases with indirect question complements:

1881 TROLLOPE Dr. Wortle's School V. iv, Mrs. Wortle began to think whether the visitor could have known of her intended absence.

And, perhaps, another residue is the re-thinking of things that can't now be thought in the first place.]


  1. Ian Preston said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 9:15 pm

    From recent news: "Friends relive flooding terror"; "Relive the music you fell in love with"; "Duquesne University students relive tale Of Pittsburgh baseball legend"; "'Men in Blue' relive old memories". I am not sure any of these work with "live."

  2. pfc said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 9:16 pm

    It seems like "rethink" might be a simplified derivation from "think up" (i.e., "imagine") or "think about" ("consider"), rather than "think". The following substitutions capture the concept of the original event:

    We may need to think [about] our way of dealing with this problem.
    …the weekend's fires "show that many communities need to think [about] the notion of who lives in a bushfire zone …"
    Mr. Bush said any plan to think [up] financial mechanisms should "preserve the foundations of democratic capitalism"…

    I wonder if the re- prefixing could tend to cause a loss of the accompanying particle (I don't know the technical term)? I suppose that could be checked by looking for A) re- prefixing that retains the post-verbal particle or B) finding a re- verb with two separate meanings (V P1 -> re-V, V P2 -> re-V). But I can't, uh, think up very many right now.

  3. Mike said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 9:35 pm

    Well, remark, remind, repair, rebound, retire.. All are verbs without the re- prefix, but this is probably cheating since none of them mean "to VERB again"… Too bad for anyone who wants a single word for something like "to arrange into groups of two, again"

  4. C.J. Jameson said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 9:59 pm

    Consider "rehash":

    "they’ve done nothing but rehash and expand the old procedures"
    "we are not going to rehash what took place against the Devils last time out"

    Hash by itself (besides having some technical meanings) doesn't totally work with such sentences. Note, however, that many of this example make more sense if you replace

    RE-verb with verb + preposition

    where a suitable preposition is selected:

    We may need to think ABOUT our way of dealing with this problem
    'Men in Blue' live THROUGH old memories
    they’ve done nothing but hash OUT and expand the old procedures

    This preposition takes on an adverbial tinge, it seems.

  5. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 10:03 pm

    I'm not sure if this counts, but I think "regenerated" can be used in the middle voice (or mediopassive voice?) more comfortably than "generated" can, as in "the tails of some lizards can regenerate if they're bitten off" (whereas to use bare "generate" I think it would have to be active+transitive, as in "some lizards can generate new tails if their old ones are bitten off").

  6. mgh said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 10:09 pm

    "revisit" works the same as "rethink":

    Quinn to revisit Pontiac prison closure
    Some places revisit immigration laws
    County to revisit decision on storm sirens
    ArcelorMittal May Revisit Dividend Policy If Market Improves-CFO

    This seems to have been played on in sloganeering: "Refresh, Renew, and Revisit"

  7. Amy de Buitléir said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 10:41 pm

    You can reneg on something, but I don't think you can "neg" it.

  8. Marguerite said,

    February 12, 2009 @ 11:21 pm

    Wall street journal's Best of the Web regularly ridicules the "stronger than thought" / "faster than thought" etc. headlines…

  9. Philip said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 12:48 am

    Here's another odd one.

    Verbs, of course, can be imperatives: Walk, sit, talk. Imperatives can also be negative: Don't walk, don't sit, don't talk.

    There's only one verb I know of that can only be a negative imperative: *Budge/don't budge:

    Don't budge an inch!
    *Budge an inch!

    Are there others out there? And how about vice-versa? Are there any verbs that are grammatical as imperatives but as not negative imperatives?

    A wonderful teacher in an off-hand comment pointed this out in a Linguistics 101 class decades ago, and I haven't been able to think of another example in all these years.

  10. Yuval said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 12:53 am

    So when ones minisces, is it about the future or the past?

  11. danthelawyer said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 2:18 am

    @C.J. Jameson:
    Along similar lines (verb form + preposition) is refresh. You can freshen up, after all.

  12. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 2:37 am

    "Budge an inch" can be paralleled with "drink a drop", "walk a step", "sleep a wink", "say a word", "do a stroke of work", etc., all of which are much more common in negatives than positives (though I don't say they are impossible as positives). Positive "budge over a bit, will you" and similar expressions are common enough. French likewise has various complements of the negative such as "pas", "goutte", "mot", etc. In my ancient (7th) edition of Grevisse they are discussed at para 875.

  13. Chris Lance said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 3:18 am

    "Rethink" seems to be used as an synonym for "reconsider", which can be replaced by "consider" and still make good sense.

  14. a. y. mous said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 3:33 am

    Mildly off-topic.

    "Copy-Pasted" off the WWW from God knows which site and when!

    There is no egg in eggplant nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple… English muffins were not invented in England or French fries in France. Sweetmeats are candies, while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat.

    We find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square, and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig.

    And why is it that writers write, but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce, and hammers don't ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So, one moose, 2 meese? One index, two indices? Is cheese the plural of choose?

    If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat?

    In what language do people recite at a play, and play at a recital?

    Ship by truck, and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell? Park on driveways and drive on parkways? How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? How can the weather be hot as hell one day and cold as hell another?

    When a house burns up, it burns down. You fill in a form by filling it out, and an alarm clock goes off by going on.

    When the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible. And why, when I wind up my watch, I start it, but when I wind up this essay, I end it?

  15. Tom Saylor said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 5:21 am

    I note that while you can't think a plan, you can think a plan through, and, of course, you can or think a plan absurd.

  16. Karen said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 5:32 am

    Ah, the old "English is so funny" essay. I just finished teaching a Russian morphology class in which we have to deal with the prefix "za" which can mean "to start" or "to stop". How wacky!

  17. Craig Russell said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 7:08 am

    @Simon Cauchi

    I think Philip's point is that the word "budge" overall (not just in the expression"budge an inch") can only ever be used in the imperative if it's negative. The counterexamples you give ("drink a drop," etc.) are expressions whose verbs *can* be positive in the imperative when used alone.

    And would you really say "budge over a bit"? I can't recall ever hearing or saying anything like that; it sounds very odd to me. Maybe it's regional. I'm an American who has lived in the Northwest and Southeast; are you from a different country or different part of the US?

  18. sleepnothavingness said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 7:31 am

    @ Philip:

    Both imperative forms for budge/don't budge are standard in Northern Br.E, likewise their quantified counterparts.

  19. Nick Lamb said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 7:39 am

    I'm British and would definitely say "Budge over a bit" and would find "Budge" alone as an imperative rude but not ungrammatical. My closest to hand (British) dictionary a Collins, agrees that it's "mostly used with a negative".

    I have a dim memory of playing a children's chasing game with safe areas that only one player can occupy. If you arrived at an occupied safe area you shouted "Budge!" and the occupier had to run off to look for another safe area leaving you with a safe place to rest until you were in turn displaced.

  20. Megan said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 8:53 am

    @ Philip & @ Craig

    I'm Aussie & definitely use "budge" alone, though only among friends, as the curtness could be considered rude, like Nick Lamb said. Both "Budge!" and "Budge up!" could be used to mean "Squash up, I want some space!"

    Incidentally, a truck hire company in Oz used "budge" in its slogan for many years: "Budge it with a Budget Rent-A-Truck", which I don't consider rude or marked at all. Perhaps all our playground shouts of "budge" were inspired by marketing?

  21. Simon Cauchi said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 8:58 am

    @Craig Russell
    I was born and bred in the UK but have been long resident in New Zealand, and I would certainly say "Budge over a bit, will you" (or "please"). What would you say to the person — let's say, a spouse or child — sitting next to you on a park bench if you wanted to ask that person to give you a little more room?

  22. bfwebster said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    My first thought on reading the headline to the MSNBC article was "Time flies like an arrow!" Heh.

    Ran into the same problem in this article over at the American Spectator. Here's the opening sentence:

    McClatchy quotes investment analyst Ed Yardeni as saying that "nothing would have been better" than the stimulus package currently being rushed through Congress."

    My first read was that Yardeni was saying that the stimulus bill was great. The next sentence in the article, however, made it clear that Yardeni was actually saying that "doing nothing would have been better than passing the stimulus package." ..bruce..

  23. Jeremy said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 10:03 am

    @Simon Cauchi
    I would say "move over" or "scoot over". (I grew up in Washington state.)

  24. kip said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 10:59 am

    I don't see what is wrong/unusual about "Songbirds migrate faster than thought". Can someone explain that??

  25. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    kip: It's amusingly ambiguous, being able to be read either as "songbirds migrate faster than people thought they did", or "the speed of songbirds is faster than the speed of thought."

    I'm from Western Canada, and my speech is similar to Jeremy above. I could say "move over" or "scoot over" or "scooch over", but not "budge".

    More on negative imperatives: You can say "Don't worry", but it sounds very strange to say "Worry" as an imperative. However, is it ungrammatical per se? (If the immediate intuition of native speakers is "sounds weird", that doesn't automatically mean "ungrammatical", does it? e.g. "eat the chair")

  26. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 11:13 am

    Back to the original topic, I've always thought "to research" was odd in this respect. Either it doesn't make sense to drop the "re-" — I'm researching cannibalism vs. *I'm searching cannibalism — or dropping the "re-" creates a sentence that makes sense but that bears little relationship to the "research" sentence — I'm David Bowie Mars vs. I'm searching David Bowie.

    Then there's the fact that you can REsearch something that can't (at least currently) be searched in the first place: I'm researching collapsed stars vs. I'm searching collapsed stars.

    It also seems weird that even if you're using primary sources to understand a brand new subject, it's still considered REsearch and not just search.

  27. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 11:32 am

    "I like refried beans. But I want to try fried beans, because maybe they're just as good and we're just wasting time." — Mitch Hedberg

  28. Bobbie said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 11:36 am

    Another example of syntactic ambiguity:"Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana" (attributed to Groucho Marx)

  29. Mike said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 12:00 pm


    Could you fresh my memory on that one? ;)

  30. Richard Sabey said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    I'm English, and "budge" is idiomatic in the positive imperative for me, as for Simon Cauchi. However, IME "budge" is usually found in contexts of negative polarity: either negative or interrogative.

    Re-X verbs with no *X: refurbish, rejuvenate.

    Re-X verbs which don't mean to do X again: recapitulate, redouble (as in to redouble your effort, not in the bridge sense), rehabilitate, reinforce, reinsure, resuscitate. There are of course many examples where the re- means "back" rather than "again", e.g. react, rebuff, recall…

  31. Arnold Lambtally said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 1:18 pm

    Actually, furbish is in the OED:

    furbish, v.t. To remove rust from (a weapon, armour, etc.); to brighten by rubbing, polish, burnish.

  32. Chris said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 2:21 pm

    I don't see what is wrong/unusual about "Songbirds migrate faster than thought".

    How fast does thought migrate, anyway?

    I think this is a good example of Don't Omit Needful Words: "Songbirds migrate faster than previously thought" is unambiguous (well, except as to the identity of the unexpressed thinker(s)); a time adverb forces "thought" to be interpreted as a participle and not as a noun.

  33. Philip said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 3:15 pm

    Come to think of it, it's not just the imperative form of budge that's grammatical only as a negative, it's any form of budge (in my dialect of English, anyway):

    He hasn't budged from the couch in eight hours.
    *No, I've been watching him closely, and he has budged twice.

    He's hard-headed; he won't budge from his position.
    *He's a softie; he'll budge if anyone disagrees.

    You are absolutely wrong; why won't you budge?
    *You are completely correct, so why will you budge?

    I still can't think of any other verbs in English like budge.

  34. Quercus said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    Just to add another not quite matching example: since I’d been thinking about electric guitars, when I saw “re-verb” I had a non-linguistic association. And I realized that I don’t know how to get my voice to verberate, with or without an echo chamber.

    And interestingly, for me, budge as an imperative sounds very strange (“Budge over” is understandable, but clearly foreign), but not in a question “Could you budge it?” or even a request phrased as a question “Can you budge that corner so I can get in?”

  35. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

    My dialect agrees with yours, Philip. Interesting.

    I can't think of other examples either. The closest I can think of is idioms that are phrased using a negative, but lose their idiomatic status when the negative is changed to a positive.

    Example: "I didn't drink a drop." I understand this as an idiom, forcefully asserting that I had absolutely nothing to drink.

    However, "I drank a drop", though grammatical for me, is not interpreted as an idiom, but as a literal assertion that I consumed one drop.

    So, at least loosely speaking, this is an example of something where "you can say the negative, but you can't say the positive." Again, though, it's not that the positive is ungrammatical, but just nonidiomatic and an odd thing to say.

  36. James Wimberley said,

    February 13, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    Recap. Cap is a verb, but with unrelated meanings. Short for recapitulate; but you get the same problem there.

  37. Jason F. Siegel said,

    February 14, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

    @ Mark: "Re-tool" would be an example of what you're looking for, I believe.

  38. ChrisSmith said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 9:47 am

    You can "rework" essays, plans, policies, software, etc. – though originally you wrote, conceived, developed them, and so on, but you didn't "work" them.

  39. mpb said,

    February 16, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

    I've been collecting examples of superlative thinking for some time. These are posted at e.g., Biocultural Science (careful thought, etc) or through Hlthenvt Tumblr
    Usually the examples come from science subjects.

    More invasive than thought
    More Internet users than thought
    Costs higher than thought
    Transmission higher than thought
    Japan leak ‘worse than thought’
    Bird Flu Problem More Complicated Than Thought
    Tainted toothpaste wider reach than thought:
    vaccine even less effective than thought
    Art is older than thought
    Footprints much, much older than thought
    Younger than thought


  40. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    February 17, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    One might also collect quotations of zen-like self-contradiction through the use of "nothing," as in "Nothing is better than this." Is this the best thing ever, or is this so bad that having nothing is preferable?

  41. marie-lucie said,

    February 24, 2009 @ 11:46 pm

    drink a drop, etc

    I think the following is related:

    I heard a piece on Canadian radio in which a man was commenting on interesting ways his Japanese wife spoke English.

    Of a mutual acquaintance she once said "I dislike his guts". The husband pointed out that you can only "hate" someone's "guts", not "dislike" them. The wife knew the phrase with "hate" but thought the word was too strong for the way she felt. On another occasion, during a tender moment she said "Honey, I love your guts".

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