Redoubtable

There he goes again.

Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering how a word like “redoubtable” came to mean “formidable.”  Looking at the word, it sounds like it means “again able to be doubted.” — Rosemarie Eskes, Rochester, NY.

It sure does, perhaps as in “After the politician’s press conference, many observers were convinced that he had come clean and managed to salvage his career. But the subsequent release of videos showing him pole-dancing naked in the House cloakroom made his political future redoubtable.” Speaking of Twitter, which I obliquely was, Cardinal Richelieu is said to have once declared, “Give me six lines written by the most honest man in the world, and I will find enough in them to hang him.” I guess if skip the “most honest” part, we’re down to 140 characters. Not counting, of course, pictures that put the “eew” in “lewd.”

Meanwhile, back at your question, “redoubtable” does indeed mean, as the American Heritage Dictionary puts it, “Arousing fear or awe; formidable” or “Worthy of respect or honor.” In current usage, “redoubtable” is primarily used to mean “formidable” or “worthy of respect because of strength, endurance or ability” (“She was gutsy, brave, talented and skilled beyond measure in the art of self-promotion. She was, in a word, redoubtable,” Brantford (Ontario) Expositor, 2006).

The curious thing about “redoubtable” is that it seems to describe exactly the sort of person you’d be least likely to “doubt” or find “doubtable.” It seems that there must have been some sort of mistake in the prefix, and that the word should properly be “undoubtable.” But the twist in “redoubtable” is actually to be found in the history of our familiar word “doubt.”

The root of “doubt” is the Latin verb “dubitare,” meaning “to doubt, waver, hesitate, be uncertain.” That “dubitare” was a close relative of the adjective “dubius,” which meant “uncertain” (and eventually gave us the English word “dubious”), which in turn seems to have been related to “duo” (two), with the sense of “wavering between two choices.”

“Doubt” appeared in English in the 13th century, having been adopted into Middle English from the Old French descendant of “dubitare,” which was “douter.” Interestingly, the initial form in English was also “douter” or “doute,” but in the 15th century the “b” of “dubitare,” which had been dropped by the French, was re-introduced (giving us “doubte”) because it was deemed to be more “authentic.” About the same time the French also started using that “b” again, but dropped it again in the 17th century.

English also inherited the two senses in which Old French had used “douter.” One was our modern “doubt” meaning “to be uncertain or wavering; to hesitate to trust; to be of divided opinion about” (“Because Socrates doubted some things, therefore Arcesilas and Carneades doubted all,” 1780). This is the “doubt” of uncertainty we all know, and occasionally wallow in, today.

But another sense of “doubt” had evolved in Old French, that of “to fear, to dread, to be afraid of,” and this sense was actually the primary one in Middle English and early Modern English. This “fear” sense of “to doubt,” now obsolete but used well into the 19th century, was a development of the “to be uncertain” meaning of “doubt,” specifically “to fear that something uncertain has or may take place” (“Doubting that all will break in pieces in the Kingdom,” S. Pepys, 1665).

When English adopted “doubt” from Old French, we also inherited “redoubt,” a verb based on this “fear” sense of “doubt,” which meant “to fear, dread” as well as “to respect.” (The “re” prefix in “redoubt” is an intensifier meaning “very much,” so “to redoubt” something meant to dread (or respect) it very much.) This “redoubt” gave us both “redoubtable” (worthy of respect) and the noun “redoubt,” meaning “a stronghold, refuge or retreat,” today often used in a figurative sense (“The last redoubt of the true Bohemians, a rookery in Polk street, has been torn down to make room for the ornate New Babylonia,” 1925).

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