Friday, 14 October 2011

Recuperating from recooing?

In a TV panel discussion a few months ago one of the participants said it would take a while to “re-coo” a particular investment. The origin of this mispronunciation may well be that the person concerned had heard coup (correctly) pronounced without the p sound and assumed that recoup should receive similar treatment.

While we’re on the subject of recoup: you may have noticed that the word sometimes gets stirred around with recuperate in a little crucible of confusion and that occasionally someone will talk about “recouping” after an illness.

Is there any overlap in the meanings of recoup and recuperate? Can the words ever be used interchangeably?

In everyday usage – at least from my observation of careful speakers and writers – evidently not. Yet a visit to a few dictionaries brought one or two interesting facts to light.

Both in their most common use and in their primary sense as listed in the three dictionaries I looked at, recuperate means “to recover from illness or exertion”, while recoup means to “regain (something lost or expended)” (Oxford); “make up for” (Thorndike Barnhart); “regain or make good (a financial or other loss)” (Collins).

However, in all these dictionaries the second meaning listed for recuperate is “regain (something lost)”, apparently making it acceptable to use the word interchangeably with recoup.

My recommendation would, however, be not to use recuperate in this (second) sense. The reason is that, while recuperate may be used as a synonym for recoup, the converse does not hold, i.e. recoup cannot be used to mean “recuperate” (from illness or exertion), and it would be all too easy, in a careless moment, to say or write recoup when you mean recuperate in this sense – and then you would be wrong. This suggestion to keep the two words distinct as far as possible is also in line with the idea of the importance of contrast (something I’ll address in another article).

Incidentally, a second meaning listed for recoup in the dictionaries quoted from above is “to reimburse or recompense someone, e.g. for money spent or lost”. As a legal term the word is used to mean “deduct or keep back part of a sum due”.

For the etymologically minded: recoup comes from Old French recouper, meaning “retrench”, “cut back”, from re- (“back”) + couper (“to cut”), while recuperate is ultimately from Latin re- (“back”) + capere (“to take”).  –ws– 

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