Re-member?

Recently, I took on a volunteer task of tracking alumni from my high school class for our upcoming reunion. A great deal of work had been done by my predecessor, and I was given a list of 255 alums for whom we had at least an email address, with 35 missing and 45 deceased. My task now was to incorporate any changes of address that came along and to try to find some of those 35 missing people.

All of this has caused me to remember many people who have been off my radar screen for quite a while. Either the name meant nothing until I looked them up in the yearbook, or vice-versa. With every new change that came in, it was another trip down memory lane.

In the course of all this, I got to wondering about remember, the process of recalling something. What’s with the re? And what is the member we’re talking about?

The re in this case doesn’t mean again, like it does in rejoin or rewind. Instead, it is a prefix that adds force to the following part of the word, in this case member. Member, as you might have guessed, has to do with memory, specifically with the Latin word memor, meaning mindful. The Romans had a perfectly good word, rememorari¸ meaning  call to mind. But where did that b slip in?

Thank the French. They took rememorari and transmogrified it into remember¸ which English speakers picked up in the days of Middle English (1150–1500). I’m conjecturing here, but I think adding the b just made the word easier to say.

Uh oh. <<CAUTION! WILD DIVERSION AHEAD!>> Transmogrify has long been a favorite word of mine, and I was thrilled to be able to use it writing this. It means to change something in a way that is either magical or bizarre, depending on which dictionary you use. But we can’t simply pick apart the word to understand it. Trans we understand as meaning across, beyond or through. But mogrify? There ain’t no such word.

There are several theories about mogrify, none of them obvious. One theory states that transmogrify evolved from transmigure, which aligns with the word transmigrate. Another theory maintains that the mogrify part is derived from the word maugre, which means notwithstanding. And a third theory views the word as a playful combination of transfigure and modify.

Transmogrify has plenty of room in everyday use. For example, I often transmogrify the food in the refrigerator into something no person should eat.

But right now, I’ll have to remember not to transmogrify any changes of address that my high school classmates send along.

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