In a Main Street Program committee meeting last week, the words "revitalization," "restructuring," "renovation," "reconstruction," "revision," "reconfiguring," and "reordering" (as in priorities, not coffee, though we did that too), were used in the conversation a total of 268 times.
(Full disclosure: the number 268 is based not on a full word count, impossible under the circumstances - the author was a participant, not a scribe - but is an estimate based on a statistical sampling from the author's notes. Those notes included 67 uses of variant "re-" words. Presuming that the notes captured 25% of the discussion, the total "re-" usage can be extrapolated to 268. There were no hanging chads.)
(Furthermore, there were six participants, and the meeting ran for a full one hour and sixteen minutes. That makes 47 "re-"s per person, and 3.53 "re-"s per minute.) Let's just say that we were "re-"ing with abandon.
"Re-" is a profligate prefix, one that can and will attach itself to just about any verb. If you did something once, you can always "re-" it and do it again. Handy. A Prefix of Maximal Utility.
The Main Street committee certainly was not doing anything out of the ordinary. We "re-" a lot in the course of the day. We "re-wind" (to get back to the beginning) and "re-boot" (to get back to a fresh start -- although I can't for the life of me remember when I ever just booted). The cosmetics industry thinks we will buy if a product "re-juvenates" (makes youthful) or "re-plenishes" (brings back a lot of something we presumably had before). Journalists work on "re-visions" (not just as in changing a word or a comma, but literally to "see" their work again). Some of us are encouraged to "'re-think' that tie" (which, in current flippage, is short for "You don't get out much, do you?").
We can even double the fun: academics "re-research" a subject, digging up something that was dug up before (presumably necessary since the number of academics per square foot has grown exponentially, and methods of re-search are constantly re-vised).
To "re-" isn't even an activity of modern invention. The American Founders did it, politically: the "re-volution" of 1776 was literally a turning around to political practices older than George III's and those of his Parliament. John Calvin and Martin Luther did it, religiously: a "re-formation" of the Church was accomplished by "re-turning" to older practices and thought. Shakespeare did it, creatively: nobody had ever "re-greeted" until Sir John Oldcastle did it to Henry V (though I'm not certain that anyone has "re-greeted anyone since). The ability to "re-re-" something was even noted (by the Oxford English Dictionary) as early as 1778. In fact, speakers of Latin did it first. It's hard-wired in Latin, and English simply plugged in an extension cord.
When we "re-" something, we are making something new out of something old. The Romans found that especially appropriate - for them, there was really nothing decisively new under the sun, but a great deal old that was capable of reshaping in new ways. The foundational Latinism here is probably religare, religion, which was defined by what it signified: to be tied back, bound like ligaments to muscle, to the old traditions of Rome and its gods.
If "re-" is so easily used, we ought to very careful about choosing the company we ask it to keep. It matters what we jam it up against.
In that Main Street Program committee meeting, "re-vitalizing" and "re-structuring" took the principal roles. "Re-novating" (making new again), "re-configuring" (shaping again), "re-vising" (as above, this time as done by everybody besides journalists), all of these played secondary parts, only because each was something that would have to be done along the way to ultimate goals.
It seems to me that "re-vitalizing" (bringing life back again to) downtown serves as the best contender for the title of ultimate aim.
No image of our local world five (even two) years from now could beat that of having to contend with a pedestrian traffic jam at Bridge and Main, to have to press through a crowd on my way to re- re-ordering that coffee at Steel City.
But "re-vitalization" tells us nothing specific about what needs to be done between now and then, only about what we aim for. "(Economic) re-structuring" (constructing again), however, seems to say something too little. In so far as it is a rather technical activity for (one-handed) economists and involves people with specific realty or retail interests, it risks suggesting only the involvement of the few for what is a community-wide activity. To be sure, it is necessarily that, in part. But only in part.
For my money (and yours, too, because, well, you know, our common tax dollars are at work here), I'd suggest "re-invention."
"Reinvention" is comprehensive; it implies a larger range of required activity and a larger range of required actors. All aspects of community life. All residents and workers. Sensitive to the requirement of "re-" words to be tied back to something, it would necessarily involve an assessment not only of where we want to go but of where we've been, not only of what we want to be but also what we have been. There is a strong sense in "reinvention" of purposefully "making" a future. With head, heart, and hands-on. And, if that American original T.A. Edison was correct, 90% of the task will be sheer inspiration; the rest will be sweat.
Sounds right. This town was invented once. It can be reinvented.
"Re-invention" is a word that did not appear in the committee's conversation last week. It's a matter I'm planning to re-visit. Meanwhile, you're responses are welcome. I can always re-consider.
(This column is written in memory of John Flagg Gummere, who would have known why.)