Friday, November 21, 2003


In the romance languages and British English, “to reduce” means to diet. While cooking, one can “reduce” or boil down a liquid to thicken it and concentrate its flavor. One can also “reduce” a fraction to its simplest, indivisible form.

“Reducing” conjures shrinkage, diminishment. Today we speak of reducing stress, taxes, or the price of gasoline. But the word reduce comes from the Latin roots RE + DUCERE (to lead or bring) and it originally meant “to bring back, restore, or replace” – or so says the Oxford English Dictionary.

This morning, I strained and squinted at three columns of the OED’s reduced font, which told the story of "reduce" and its recently reduced circumstances. From oldest to newest definitions, the arc of meaning went something like this:

"to bring back, recall… to carry back in time…to lead or bring back from error…to redress or repair a wrong…to bring into another language (to translate)…to set down or record in writing…to change (a quantity or figure) into a different form…to convert into a different physical state or form (to crush into powder)…to convert into metal, to smelt…to decompose; to convert into a simpler compound, into constituent elements…to resolve by analysis…to bring to order or obedience…to subdue or conquer…to reclaim or domesticate (animals)…to overcome, subdue, repress, moderate…to bring down to a bad or disagreeable condition…to weaken physically; to diminish the strength or spirit…to be compelled by want to do something (in passive, with infinitive)"

I’ll stop with that last one. If life feels reduced, then maybe one could also claim that, per the original meaning of that word, life is being brought back or restored. Being weakened or conquered is no good, but three cheers for the reduction through which a persistent, digging want compels one to do something. Although—no disrespect to the OED—I'd skip passive construction with the infinitive in favor of active construction with the imperative.


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