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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | journalese (film)?, computerese? | “put to (new or different) use,” “recycle,” “adapt,” “convert”)

It sort of rhymes with “refurbish,” and there’s often an implicit sense of renewal or revival in “repurpose” that lies beyond our everyday definition: taking an object intended for one use and giving it another. From a specialized origin, this verb has grown out to encompass more and more objects. Now a favorite of advice columnists, interior designers, and community planners, “repurpose” came into common use a scant twenty years ago, mainly in the argot of film and television executives.

In those days, repurposing was something that happened to content; the sense might be summarized as “old content, new context.” Say you owned the rights to a bunch of old movies, or new data, and you wanted to exploit them, so you figured out a way to work them into a new form — putting them on-line, say — or to change them a little in order to attract a new audience, like adding some sort of interactive feature. Film executives were the pioneer repurposers, and the mid-nineties was a particularly opportune time for such a term to come along, what with the dawn of DVD’s and the internet. Those wily executives needed a word that disguised the fact that they were peddling the same old stuff; the idea was to make as few changes as possible when repurposing your content. Maybe some technical adjustment was required, but the point was to save money by transplanting what you already had. Sometimes it meant as little as “copy text from one web site to another,” so that after a year or two it became a way of referring to a rival’s lack of creativity or lack of respect for the customer. You might hear, “We don’t just repurpose our content.” You had to alter the content so it would work in the new context; failure to do so hurt sales.

Which is closer to what “repurpose” means now. It stretches much farther today, not only to objects, but money, food, or even ideas. In the case of abstractions, it generally means something like “redirect,” which is not so intuitive. But in general, the term has become more intuitive, not less; when you repurpose a building or a Christmas ornament, you are deliberately deviating from the way it was intended to be used; that is, you are giving it a new purpose, or “purposing” it again. When the word grew first in Hollywood, the purpose of the classic movie remained the same as ever — to make money for film executives. And “repurpose” suggested a conscious effort to make something new out of an existing product, not just repackage it. That’s why there was always something misleading about using the word that way. Now the deception has filtered out of the word, and with it the whiff of the arcane that wafted through the room when industry experts spoke sagely of repurposing “I Love Lucy.”

When did “to purpose” become a verb, you ask? It’s been a verb for a long time, meaning “to resolve (to do something).” But so far “repurpose” has not spawned a new definition for “purpose,” as in “assign a function to.” There is no root form of the verb; it requires a prefix. One can imagine other prefixes, or even the rise of “Oh, baby, purpose me!” But not yet; to date, “repurpose” stands alone.

The early career of “repurpose” is somewhat more interesting than I have let on. There is a ten-year gap in LexisNexis between the first (1984) and second appearances of this term, an extraordinary occurrence. Google Books shows only a few scattered instances in the eighties. “Repurpose” was used in an exceedingly specialized context, and even after reading several examples, I still can’t figure out exactly what it meant, but it had to do with a process applied to videodiscs that were playable on a computer, which is why I suspect that the true wellspring for this word may be computerese. But it didn’t start to show up in the mainstream press until the mid-nineties, and it doesn’t seem to have spread beyond the entertainment press until after 2000. One of the first hits in LexisNexis dates from 1994 in The New Republic: “Los Alamos [New Mexico], like most other defense-based civic economies, is searching for ways to repurpose itself.” Pretty advanced for 1994; even blocks and single buildings weren’t candidates for repurposing back then, much less entire cities. To this day, the reflexive use has not caught on, but don’t be surprised if it does.

Thanks to lovely Liz from Queens for nominating this word for investigation this week!

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