A thousand times no.

Dear Word Detective:  All through my adolescent and adult life I have used the word “renege” when it comes to someone backing out of a deal or situation.  As I try to look around Google and others I find I have no clue how to find what you find and cannot on my own understand where and when this word became common knowledge.  I beg of you to help me and my wife understand the full depth of this one single word. — Dan Drenberg.

This is interesting.  I’ve been getting an increasing number of questions from my readers couched in tones of near-desperation, imploring me to explain words or phrases so that the questioner might snatch a moment’s sleep for the first time in a month, get their housework done before the dog hair suffocates the goldfish, or just generally go back to leading a normal, ho-hum existence.  My hunch is that it’s really all about what the folks on the TV call, with unseemly perkiness, “the global economic meltdown.”  Understandably reluctant to meditate too long on the prospect of fighting the cat for the last can of Fancy Feast, people offload their anxiety into worrying about the provenance of “ampersand” or “pedigree.”   Hey, it’s OK with me, and I’m glad to help.  Your cloud is my tiny silver bailout.

All things considered, “renege” is actually a pretty straightforward word, snapped together from solid Latin roots.  “Renege” first appeared in English in the mid-16th century (with the now-archaic meaning of “to deny, renounce, abandon or desert”), but it wasn’t until the late 18th century that it acquired its modern meaning of, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “To change one’s mind, to recant; to break one’s word; to go back on a promise or undertaking or contract; to disappoint expectations.”  Incidentally, “renege” is sometimes spelled “renegue” outside the US.

As I said, “renege” is built from Latin roots, the prefix “re” plus the verb stem “negare,” meaning “to deny” (and which also gave us our modern English “negative,” “deny” and several other words).  The only slightly sticky part is that “re.”  Ordinarily, “re” appended to a verb signals repetition or restoration, as in “renew” (make new again), “recreate” (make again), “refer” (literally “to carry back”), and so on.  In this case, however, the “re” acts as an intensive modifier, meaning “strongly,” so “renegare” carries the meaning of “to deny strongly or completely; to refuse.”  Thus to “renege” on a promise is to flatly refuse to keep it.

“Renege” doesn’t play a large role in most people’s vocabularies (unless you’re a banker, I suppose).  It’s the slightly strange hat or clunky shoes we almost never wear.  But “renege” has a famous relative.  When that Latin “renegare” worked its way through Spanish, it became the noun  “renegado,” meaning  someone who denies or renounces their religious faith (specifically, in medieval Spain, a Christian who became a Muslim).  Brought into English in the late 16th century, “renegado” became our “renegade,” eventually arriving at the more general meaning of “one who deserts a party, person, or principle; a turncoat.”

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