Total Recall

Recall is an interesting word by virtue of how simple its etymology is.

There’s no need for me to delve deep into Proto-Germanic words to refer to memory: recall is simply the word call with the prefix re- before it.

That’s it, and if you think about what it means when we recall something, it makes sense. If you recall (remember) something, it’s like you call the memory back to your mind, so you can experience it. You’re calling it again: recalling it.

This occurred to me while in Belgium, and I noticed that many speed signs were preceded by a sign saying Rappel. I didn’ think much about them at first, until one day it became obvious what they meant. The French for to call is appeler (as in Je m’appelle…), and in the correct conjugation in this case would be appel. Rappel is therefore recall! The signs are telling you to remember the speed limit!

In fact, recall probably came into English from the Old French rapel. This is also where we get the verb to repeal. It’s used in quite different contexts, usually in politics, but the basic idea is similar: you’re calling something back, taking, for example, a law or constitutional amendment out of the world. The verb to revoke also has a link to to recall. It comes from the Latin revocare, which means to recall (think of words like voice, vocal etc.). And of course we don’t only use to recall to refer to memories. You can recall a defective product, similar to to repeal and to revoke.

Of course when we talk about memory, we’re more likely to use to remember, which has another pretty straightforward etymology. It comes from the Latin rememorari, which simply means to think about again (the word member is unrelated). To remind also has a similar origin, if you recall how to mind meant to think or remember.

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