Razor Sharp

If you’re a thrifty person, you might be interested to know that you can resharpen an old razor blade by rubbing it a few times along some denim (in the opposite direction you shave).

But wait: should that just be sharpen!?

I’d heard about this before, and having recently got to the point when I’d normally replace a blade, I thought I’d give it a try. For most people, this would be a pretty straightforward affair. But as usual, it sent me into an existential and grammatical void in which I (quite happily) spent some considerable time spinning round.

My first instinct was to say to myself that I was resharpening the blade: making it sharp again, therfore using the prefix re-. Something was sharp, then it become blunt, so you make it sharp again by resharpening it. Easy. Done.

Or so I thought.

It then occurred to me that I was adding the prefix re- to the verb sharpen. Sharpen meaning to make sharp. But, if I add re- to that verb, it means that the action of that verb (to make sharp) is being performed for (at least) a second time. BUT… I’d never sharpened it before, and presumably no-one else had before me. Sure, there had been an original piece of metal that someone at Gillette had sharpened to make the blade originally, but this was almost defnitely the first time this blade had been sharpened. So, I strictly should have said I was sharpening it.

Still, logical and all as that might be, resharpen still feels right, doesn’t it? Because we’re not really thinking about whether or not I’m performing the action for the first time or not. What I’m thinking about is that I’m restoring the blade to its former sharpness. And I think that resharpen works fine for that meaning too.

So basically I think we can use the word with both meanings. Funnily enough though, even though I’m talking about two different meanings, we can actually use the exact same definition for both: to make something sharp again. Even though we can use the exact same words for the definition of both meanings, the focus is different in both.

In the first, when we say to make sharp again, we mean we’re performing the action (making something sharp) again. For this one, think about us forming the word by adding re- to sharpen to make the word. We’re sharpening something (sharpen) again (re-). The definition is focused on repeating the action: to MAKE something sharp AGAIN.

In the second meaning, we’re restoring something’s sharpness, perhaps for the first time. So for this meaning, we can think of us adding resharp (the state of being sharp again) to -en (which turns this concept into a verb). Here the action’s not repeated, but the state: to make something SHARP AGAIN.

You see what I mean about making all this far more complicated and existential than it needs to be?

I did find all this speculation quite interesting though, as we’re not often forced to think about how we construct words. And I found it particularly interesting that the simple definition to make something sharp again can have two quite different meanings. As complex and sprawling as English can be, it’s also often remarkably efficient.

2 thoughts on “Razor Sharp

  1. The same applies to words like “re-elect.” In 1976 the US Presidential election centered on the question of whether Gerald Ford would be re-elected; many declared that he couldn’t be re-elected because he was never elected in the first place (having ascended to the position upon his predecessor’s resignation). But if you interpret “re-elect” as being elected to occupy the same office again, much like your “resharpen,” then it would be correct to speak of his re-election (which, in any event, did not transpire).


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