Please don’t play it again, Sam.
Dear Word Detective: I’ve been wondering why the noun and verb forms of “refrain” differ so much in meaning. In fact, the meanings of the noun and verb seem rather opposite, since the verb means “to avoid,” whereas the noun signifies something one sings (or states) over and over again. Could you please shed some light on this? — Tara McDaniel.
That’s a darn good question. In fact, it’s such a good question that I’m wondering why it never occurred to me to answer it before now. Maybe it actually did occur to me, perhaps while I was driving, and it just slipped my mind when I got home. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Kinda like last year’s taxes. Of course, explaining “refrain” is a lot easier than explaining why all these cats should be counted as a business expense, so that tax thing is just gonna have to wait.
My first hunch about the two meanings of “refrain” was that it was a case of an “autoantonym” or “contranym,” where one word can have two opposite (or nearly so) meanings. “Sanction,” for instance, can mean both “forbid” and “permit,” and “cleave” can mean either “stick to” or “split apart.” In some cases the two words are actually the same word (e.g., “sanction”), which has developed opposing meanings over time, but in others (e.g., “cleave”) the words have entirely separate origins and just happen to share that spelling.
Explaining how a single word like “sanction” developed two contradictory meanings can be a bit of a chore, because such transformations usually involve hundreds of years and several steps. So I’m relieved to report that in the case of “refrain,” what we’re dealing with is two separate, unconnected words whose senses are vaguely discordant, although not truly antonyms.
Oddly enough, both “refrains” first appeared in English in the 14th century. “Refrain” meaning “chorus of a song” or “a phrase frequently repeated in a poem or other writing” or “a statement, especially a complaint, that is frequently made” (“‘I’m bored’ is a frequent refrain coming from the back seat on long family car trips.”) comes directly from the Old French “refrain.” Follow “refrain” further back, and we eventually arrive at the Latin verb “refringere,” which meant “to break off.” That may seem strange for a word for things that, by definition, go on and on, but the key to a “refrain” is that it “breaks off,” i.e., stops, and then starts all over again. Although “refrain” did arrive in English in the 14th century, the word only became truly common in the 1800s.
The other “refrain” carries the basic sense of “curb, restrain, abstain or prevent.” English adopted the word from the Old French “refraigner,” meaning “to keep in check; control,” and the root of that French word certainly bears that out. “Refraigner” came from the Latin “refrenare,” meaning “to restrict with a bridle,” as one would a horse (“re,” back, plus “frenare,” to use a bridle). So “to refrain,” etymologically, means to literally “hold your horses.”
Interestingly, the verb “to refrain” originally had both intransitive (“refrain from drinking”) and transitive (“I would like to think that the nurses’ words refrained them.” 1952) uses. But the intransitive sense meaning “to abstain from doing something” is the only use commonly heard today.