Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Evergreen sumac isn’t always evergreen

with 20 comments


While most of the leaves on an evergreen sumac (Rhus virens) do remain green in December, it’s not unusual for the leaves on a damaged or dying branch to turn brown or maroon. That was the case with this one in my Great Hills neighborhood on December 21st of the recently expired year. Call it fall foliage by proxy.



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Because native speakers of a language learn it by assimilation, they don’t notice many things that a foreigner does when learning the language. If you’re a native English speaker, you’ve probably never thought about the familiar prefix re-. If a foreigner asked you about it, you might think for a bit and say something like: We put re- in front of a verb to convey the meaning ‘back’ or ‘again.’ For example: “The platoon captured the high ground, later got repulsed, and then recaptured the high ground.” Or: “This story, which originated in China, has been retold in many other countries.”

So far, so good. But now suppose the foreigner asks you: “How do I know which verbs I’m allowed to stick re- on and which verbs I’m not allowed to stick re- on?” Your likely answer will be: “What do you mean?” As a native English speaker, you’ve almost certainly never realized that we can’t just put re- on any verb we want to. Take these examples:

  • I was in Barcelona in 1985 and I rewas in Barcelona in 1990.
  • Come visit as soon as you can. Recome as often as you’d like.
  • She wanted to be in movies but after repeatedly failing to get a part she gave up on the idea. A year later she rewanted to be in movies.
  • Look at that beautiful sunset. Relook at it to really appreciate it.
  • There are people who’ve had a fortune, gone bankrupt, and eventually rehad a fortune.
  • Once I knew where I was going in life. Later I lost my way. Now I reknow where I’m going.

A foreigner sees nothing illogical about any of those uses of re-, but a native speaker would never say any of them (except maybe in jest). Someone who knows a little about word origins might be aware that re- got borrowed from Latin, whereas the verbs in those examples—be, come, want, look, have, and know—are all native English words, and so maybe English just doesn’t put Latin-derived re- on native English verbs. There are a couple of problems with that hypothesis. First of all, very few English speakers know which words are native. More importantly, we can stick re- on some native verbs: we can rebuild a church, redo a chemistry experiment, remake a tarnished image, reset a slow clock, and resend an email that wasn’t received.

The situation is even more complicated: sometimes we can use re- with a native English verb but doing so changes the meaning to something other than ‘back’ or ‘again.’ Compare these two:

  • Years after his mother’s death, he still recalled her fondly.
  • He called his mother last night but she had company and couldn’t talk long. He recalled her the next morning.

The recall in the first sentence does not mean ‘call again’; it means ‘remember.’ In the second example, we’d normally say “he called her back”; we wouldn’t say “he recalled her,” or maybe we could marginally get away with that if we paused slightly between the re- and the called; we’d write that with a hyphen: “he re-called her.”

Now you see how complicated the situation is. I haven’t figured out a way of telling which English verbs we can stick re- on, which we can’t, and which we might get away with although it would sound a little strange. Native speakers somehow just know.


© 2023 Steven Schwartzman





Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 23, 2023 at 4:27 AM

20 Responses

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  1. I love this color


    January 23, 2023 at 4:44 AM

    • Me too. I wasn’t sure that maroon was the right name for the color but at least some online color chips do match it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 23, 2023 at 6:38 AM

  2. Thank you


    January 23, 2023 at 8:25 AM

  3. I was sure you were going to come up with an answer to the “re” puzzle! Intriguing.

    • There may already be an answer but I haven’t searched to see what linguists have uncovered. I was content to make native speakers aware of something they’ve almost certainly never thought about.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 23, 2023 at 9:20 AM

  4. The two uses of ‘re-‘ I use most commonly are ‘rewrite’ and ‘remember.’ I certainly can recognize the complexities of the situation!

    I seem to remember suggesting ‘cordovan’ in the past for this color: as in Cordovan shoes or briefcases. The leaves certainly have a leathery appearance.


    January 23, 2023 at 9:13 AM

    • Tell me about it: I spend lots of time rewriting, mostly by making small changes. It can be hard to know when to leave well enough alone.

      You’re better at color names than I am. I wonder if “leather” could serve as a color name. As of these leaves, the slight sheen is a reminder that poison ivy, whose leaves have a similar sheen, are also in the sumac family. Fortunately we get to handle evergreen sumac as much as we want.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 23, 2023 at 9:26 AM

      • And here comes William Zinsser again, with a bit of wisdom I keep at hand. In On Writing Well he says, “When you’re ready to stop, stop. If you have presented all the facts and made the point you want to make, look for the nearest exit.”


        January 23, 2023 at 9:40 AM

  5. The leaves have a lovely metallic sheen and whatever the right name for the colour might be, it is wonderfully rich. Interesting point about the English language. It must be a nightmare for non-native learners!

    Ann Mackay

    January 23, 2023 at 10:34 AM

    • I’ll agree on the richness of the color, whatever it’s called (a rose by another name, right?). As I mentioned to another commenter, the slight sheen of evergreen sumac leaves is a reminder that poison ivy, which has a similar luster, is also in the sumac family. I get to handle evergreen sumac as much as I want without having to worry about a bad reaction.

      Language learning is reciprocal. We English speakers would have a terrible time learning many other foreign languages. We often don’t think about how lucky we are to wield our native language without having to think about what we’re saying.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 23, 2023 at 10:50 AM

  6. These resemble patinated copper. Beautiful color.

    Steve Gingold

    January 23, 2023 at 10:38 AM

    • As soon as I saw that color and the sheen I knew I had to photograph those leaves as part of my quest for colorful fall foliage.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 23, 2023 at 10:54 AM

  7. Into my brain there appeared an image of Ricardo Montalban, hands outstretched toward your lovely leaves, intoning with that Latin baritone: “Rich Corinthian leather.” (My age is showing.)

    I really like the effect you achieved with this photograph. I’m no expert on color, but I know what I like.

    Wally Jones

    January 23, 2023 at 4:57 PM

    • A few months ago on Turner Classic Movies we watched a (necessarily old) film with Ricardo Montalban. I don’t remember the name, but some of the action took place on on a cruise ship.

      Linda (shoreacres) suggested Cordovan shoes, and now you’ve proposed Corinthian leather. I had to look that up, and here’s what Wikipedia says: “Corinthian leather is a term coined by the advertising agency Bozell in 1974 to describe the leather upholstery used in certain Chrysler luxury vehicles. Although merely a marketing concept, it suggested a premium product, ‘something rich in quality, rare, and luxurious.'”

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 23, 2023 at 5:12 PM

  8. That sumac portrait is absolutely gorgeous, Steve.

    Lavinia Ross

    January 23, 2023 at 9:16 PM

  9. The leaves are very handsome indeed and I definitely see them suggesting “Spanish leather.” Both of my grandfathers got Chrysler cars years ago, one of them (before I was born, I’ve just seen photos) was the Cordoba upholstered with that “Corinthian” leather – – they also made Ricardo Montalbán pronounce the car’s name in U.S style with the accent on the 2nd syllable and not like Córdoba.
    That’s an interesting article about added “re” to words. Sometimes it occurs to me when someone says they didn’t receive an email, so I re-sent it (and sometimes I resent having to send it again.)
    There’s a ton of words beginning with “re” to think about – – sometimes when you remove it the meaning changes, like relax and lax, even though the words are related, the first one is a good thing and the 2nd is pretty negative.
    I don’t know how a foreigner would sort out this multitude. As you pointed out, lots of words don’t mean “again,” resin isn’t re-sin, resign isn’t re-sign, wow there’s a lot.

    Robert Parker

    January 24, 2023 at 1:56 PM

    • Your discussion of the kinds of leather in old Chryslers reminded me of Bob Dylan’s song “Boots of Spanish leather”:


      For a time during my early years in Austin I had an old Chrysler with push-button drive. I can’t remember if the upholstery was leather but don’t think it was. And yes, Chrysler anglicized the pronunciation to Cordóba rather than the actual Córdoba.

      Most of the stuff about re- is just what came into my mind when I started thinking about it the other day. My investigation of cognates (words that are different forms of a common original) beginning a couple of decades ago made me aware how many pairs of words we have like the resign and re-sign that you mentioned and the recall and re-call that I gave as an example. Sometimes a change in the sound of the vowel or a difference in syllabication (or both) distinguishes the members of such a pair, for example represent and re-present. In the case of resin, the re- is part of the stem so treating it as the prefix re- would be a sin.

      Yes, it’s a complicated subject and bound to be confusing to people learning English as a foreign language.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 24, 2023 at 5:08 PM

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