The Meaning of Research

An interesting email exchange yesterday evening led me to write this post in the hope of generating a bit of crowd sourcing.

The issue at hand concerns the vexed question of the etymology and original meaning of the word “research” (specifically in the context of scholarly enquiry). The point is that the latin prefix re- usually seems to imply repetition whereas the meaning we have for research nowadays is that something new is being sought.

My first thought was to do what I always do in such situations, which is reach for the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary wherein I found the following:

Etymology: Apparently < re- prefix + search n., after Middle French recerche (rare), Middle French, French recherche thorough investigation (1452; a1704 with spec. reference to investigation into intellectual or academic questions; 1815 in plural denoting scholarly research or the published results of this) … Compare Italian ricerca (1470). Compare slightly later research v.1

Interestingly, my latin dictionary gives a number of words for the verb form of research, such as “investigare”, most of which have recognisable English descendants, but there isn’t a word resembling “research”, or even “search”, so these must have been brought into French from some other source. The prefix re- was presumably added in line with the usual treatment of Latin words brought into French.

Most of the brain cells containing my knowledge of Latin died a long time ago, but I do recall from my school days that the prefix re- does not always mean “again” in that language, and alternative meanings have crept into other languages too. In particular, “re-” is sometimes used simply as an intensifier. I remember “resplendent” is derived from “resplendere” which means to shine (splendere) intensely, not to shine again. Likewise we have replete, which means extremely full, not full again.

This led me to my theory, henceforth named Theory A, that the french “recherche” and the italian “ricerca” originally meant “to search intensely, or with particular thoroughness” as in a scholar poring over documents (presumably including the Bible). Support for this idea can be found here where it says

1570s, “act of searching closely,” from M.Fr. recerche (1530s), from O.Fr. recercher “seek out, search closely,” from re-, intensive prefix, + cercher “to seek for” (see search). Meaning “scientific inquiry” is first attested 1630s…

Being a web source, one can’t attest to its reliability and the dates quoted to differ from the OED, but it shows that at least one other person in the world has the same interpretation as me! However, Iin the interest of balance I should also quote, for example,  this dissenting opinion which is also slightly at odds with the OED:

As per the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, the word research is derived from the Middle French “recherche”, which means “to go about seeking”, the term itself being derived from the Old French term “recerchier” a compound word from “re-” + “cerchier”, or “sercher”, meaning ‘search’. The earliest recorded use of the term was in 1577.

My correspondent (and regular commenter on here), Anton, suggested an alternative theory which is based on an idea that can be traced back to Plato. This reminded me of the following explanation of the purpose of scholarship by the Venerable Jorgi in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose:

..the preservation of knowledge. Preservation, I say. Not search for… because there is no progress in the history of knowledge … merely a continuous and sublime recapitulation.

Plato indeed argued that true novelty and originality are impossible to achieve. In the Dialogues, Plato has Meno ask Socrates:

“How will you look for it, Socrates, when you do not know at all what it is? How will you aim to search for something you do not know at all? If you should meet with it, how will you know that this is the thing that you did not know? “

And Socrates answers:

“I know what you want to say, Meno … that a man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows—since he knows it, there is no need to search—nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.”

Theory B then is that research has an original meaning derived from this strange (but apparently extremely influential) Platonic idea in which “re-” really does imply repetition.

We scientists think of the scientific method as a means of justifying and validating new ideas, not a method by which new ideas can be generated, but generating new ideas is essential if science can be really said to advance. As one article I read states puts it “We aim for new-search not re-search. It is new-search that advances our understanding of how the world works.”

My research suggests that it’s possible that research doesn’t really mean re-search anyway but I can’t say I have any evidence that convincingly favours Theory A over Theory B. Maybe this is where the blogosphere can help?

I know I have an eclectic bunch of readers so, although it’s unlikely that an expert in 16th Century French is among my subscribers, I wonder if anyone out there can think of any decisive evidence that might resolve this etymological conundrum? If so, please let me have your contributions through the comments box.

In the meantime let’s subject this to a poll…

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29 Responses to “The Meaning of Research”

  1. […] “An interesting email exchange yesterday evening led me to write this post in the hope of generating a bit of crowd sourcing. The issue at hand concerns the vexed question of the etymology and original meaning of the word ‘research’ (specifically in the context of scholarly enquiry) …” (more) […]

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    The Platonic theory is, I believe, the source of the famous statement that education (e-ducere) is a drawing-out, not a putting-in.

    Because of the great influence of Greek thought on Western culture, I opt for Theory B. but nothing I am aware of is decisive between that and Theory A, which states that ‘re’ in ‘research’ is merely an intensifier.

    We clearly need to do some research on this matter.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Of course, the word has different meanings to scientists and to, say, people making programmes in the BBC.

  4. It might also be worth bearing in mind that in the Renaissance (rebirth) and beyond there really was a sense of recovering the lost knowledge of the Ancients rather than doing something completely new. This motivated natural philosophers like Newton just as much as it did, say, historians, architects or philosophers.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Yes, when Newton said that if he had seen farther then it was because he was stanging on the shoulders of giants, he clearly meant the ancient Greek philosophers. But I like Feynman’s suggestion that the solution of the cubic was a great shot in the arm to Renaissance natural philosophers, because it showed them that they had cracked a problem which had defeated the Greeks and gave them self-confidence.

    • telescoper Says:

      Good point. This suggests Theory C, i.e. that “research” means an attempt to rediscover knowledge lost during the dark ages…

  5. If something is inflammable it can inflame. 🙂 Other prefixes have different meanings depending on context. ‘Flammable’ and ‘inflammable’ are synonyms; the antonym is ‘non-flammable’.

  6. I suppose that if you search intensely for something, you will search and then search again. So a re-search is an intensive search.

    But anyway, etymology doesn’t determine meaning, so I don’t think we can say what research “really” means based on the origins of the word.

    Otherwise we’d say that doing research stops you from being “nice”…

  7. My Oxtail English Dictionary suggests alternatives:

    1) Raise Arch : the process of bridging the gap between ignorance and understanding i.e. building (raise) a bridge (or arch)

    2) Rese Arch: to shake (rese) the foundations of existing bridges (or arches) of understanding, previously built.

    3) Re-Search: orig. (ME) to look again, e.g down the back of the hay bale for the missing pigswaddle, that latest rip-roaring installment of Chaucer Tales, borrowed from the noones next door, or the remote control . In the process of looking for one thing, people often found other things e.g. the long lost flangewibblet, mouldy biscuits or the secret of turning base things into purest green. Later, sometime in the Renaissance, this activity was codified and referred to as a “method of enquiry”.

  8. Herve Aussel Says:

    Maybe the salute will come from the continent. In french, according to http://www.cnrtl.fr/etymologie/rechercher

    research comes from recercer:
    Ca 1100 recercer « parcourir en fouillant » (Roland, éd. J. Bédier, 2200); b) 1216 recercier « être à la recherche, ou en quête de quelque chose » (Guillaume le Clerc, Fergus, éd. W. Frescoln, 2127);

    – “parcourir en fouillant” means “to travel through searching…”
    – “etre a la recherche ou en quete de ” means to search or to be on a quest

    A second dictionary of old french (the Godefroy) states:
    recerchier: “parcourir en fouillant, en cherchant” and introduce a figurative use: “etudier, examiner” i.e. to study, to examine. in use in the 16th century.

    In Italian, ricercare means according to http://www.etimo.it/?term=ricercare&find=Cerca

    to search again, ie. to search with insistance. The same dictionary queried with ri gives all the numerous meaning of the preposition, incuding the sense: “with intensity”.

    So I vote A.

  9. Monica Grady Says:

    Chambers is my oracle of choice. Look up research. It says, at the end of the definition, ‘see search’. When you do so, it gives an origin from the Latin ‘circulare’, to go round. From which we get circle and circus.

    My theory: research is to go round In circles, over and over again.
    M
    X

    • telescoper Says:

      For some reason I didn’t think of looking in Chambers, which is of course every cruciverbalist’s favourite book of words. I thought you were going to say that under research it says “see search” and under “search” it says “research”!

      Anyway, for the etymology of search the OED gives:

      Etymology: < Old French cerchier (modern French chercher ), corresponding to Provençal cercar , Italian cercare to seek, Spanish cercar , Portuguese cercar to surround < late Latin circāre to go round, < Latin circus circle.

      I didn't know the verb circare as it is late latin. Interesting that it does not carry the connotation of "search" but is simply to move about.

  10. Beautiful as Theory B might be, I think Theory A is the most likely. In Spanish the prefix ‘re-‘ is still used to mean ‘with intensity’, so for example ‘rebuscar’ (‘re-‘ + ‘to search’) still means ‘to search with intensity, with care’.

  11. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’m curious as to what the Uxbridge English Dictionary says about all this.

    For some reason, this all makes me think of this (or do I remember it as being more like this?).

  12. Nick Cross Says:

    You mentioned the word reliable in your blog. Does this mean liable again, or intensely liable.

    • telescoper Says:

      Rely is derived from the latin verb religare which means “to bind back”, and originally meant to rest on as if on a support.

      Also rest does not mean st again.

  13. Scholes is interesting (as always) on the musical term ricercare. Included amongst the several meanings (some contradictory) is one from Burney: “A kind of prelude or voluntary …. usually done off-hand”.

    As a matter of interest do you research guys put the stress on the first or the second syllable? Do you pronounce the noun and the verb the same way or differently?

    • telescoper Says:

      The OED also gives a definition of “research” as an introduction or prelude in a piano work, something that was quite new to me.

      In British English it is usual to stress the second syllable in both noun and verb.

  14. I think it would be helpful if you all paused to consider WHY you are asking the question in the first place.

    In practice vocabulary develops in uneven ways so that the ‘re’ – of ‘returning to origins’; of intensification of meaning and of, effectively, ‘looking again (and again…) can all be true both as parallel and as condensed meanings – ie some uses of each separately and/or pile up of use in one go. Meanwhile 1577 is the agreed first recorded date of use of the word ‘research’ according to the OED (3rd edn, 1973).

    By the way I take it you guys are all conversant with Thomas Kuhn’s ‘Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ and of Feyerabend’s responses to that etc? I’m sceptical of Feyerabend and consider Kuhn a giant in his field when he published that book: 1962 and it still hasn’t entered the main scientific community yet – how could it – its members are getting on with ‘normal science’ …

  15. Hi,
    Very interesting discussion. I believe both A & B are right. while difficult to prove either A or B as the origin. It is very easy to understand that both apply to research as we know it today..

  16. Research is composed of two words: RE, which is a Latin term which means a thing; and, SEARCH which simply means looking for something. That something could be a knowledge, a truth, or just anything both in the realm of ideas or reality. So research is looking for something which could either be truth (Veritas), knowledge (scientia), and etc. It could be conducting the same activity to find out whether there will be the same resultant effect in a research or experiment. That is why one of the characteristics of a good research is replicability!

  17. research is composed of two words: RE, which is a Latin term which means a thing; and, SEARCH which simply means looking for something. That something could be a knowledge, a truth, or just anything both in the realm of ideas or a reality. So research is looking for something which could either be truth (Veritas), knowledge (scientia), and etc. It could be conducting the same activity to find out whether there will be the same resultant effect in a research or experiment. That is why one of the characteristics of a good research is replicability!

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      Latin for “thing” is “res”, not “re”. You got the “search” part right. The “re”, in this case, does not mean “again”, but denotes an emphasis.

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