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Edit: to anyone who stumbles across this It seems that this is a nonce word, and the intention, disappointingly, is unclear.

In the Wikipedia page on Josiah Willard Gibbs, a quote from one of his former students invokes a difference between research and search.

The full quote is:

Gibbs was not an advertiser for personal renown nor a propagandist for science; he was a scholar, scion of an old scholarly family, living before the days when research had become search ... Gibbs was not a freak, he had no striking ways, he was a kindly dignified gentleman. - E. B. Wilson, 1931

I have bolded the phrase, but the first part of the word is italicized in the original, not by me.

I've looked in a couple online dictionaries (including the OED), but I can't seem to find the latter word.

Is résearch an English word? If so, what does it mean, and what distinguishes it from research?

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  • Résearch is the French term for research. I guess that has something to to with what the author wants to suggest.
    – user 66974
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 15:33
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    @user2922582 'Résearch' is not a French word at all. 'recherche' is the translation to French of the English word.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 15:38
  • @Mitch Hmm, recherché has its own set of meanings in English (affected/pretentious or obscure/arcane). I wonder whether the author could have been trying to convey something along those lines. The meaning would make sense, but I guess that idea is a bit of a stretch.
    – njc
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 15:44
  • @njc good point. I had considered that 'recherché' had been intended but a typo or thinko had been made. But semantically, it's all a bit of a muddle, it's hard to extract the meaning from the context, and 'recherché' just didn't fit for me.
    – Mitch
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 15:53
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3 Answers 3

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I suspect Wilson was using the accent mark as a stress indicator. The implied context, I believe, is that there had been a time when the noun "research" was normally stressed on the second syllable. Over some period of time before 1931 (the year in which Wilson wrote this), people began stressing the word on the first syllable. It's like referring, today, to someone "who lived in the days before dungarees had become jeans and pocketbooks had become purses".

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    +1 because I agree the accent is a "stress" indicator, but I don't think the pronunciation is really the point. Looking at such of the context as I can dredge out of Google Books, I suspect the writer is making a semantic distinction / play on words by contrasting the now, everyday) word research with the "nonce-term" re-search. By which he intends to contrast "traditional" researchers (who go and find out new things) with an emerging class of students and "qualified scientists" who put effort into replicating results already obtained by "pioneers". Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 15:55
  • Thank you--I hadn't thought of this possibility. It could make sense as a meaning, but would benefit from some documentation of a change in pronunciation.
    – njc
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 15:55
  • @FumbleFingers That's a good point. But if that was the intention, wouldn't it make more sense to write, "...before re-search had become research"?
    – njc
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 15:57
  • I don't know that this is directly related, since it doesn't say what the timeframe is for the transition it describes, but from Oxford English Dictionaries, "The traditional pronunciation in British English puts the stress on the second syllable, -search. In US English the stress is reversed and comes on the re-. The US pronunciation is becoming more common in British English and, while some traditionalists view it as incorrect, it is now generally accepted as a standard variant of British English". Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 15:59
  • Strike my previous comment. These are Americans we're talking about, not Brits! Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 16:18
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'Résearch' is a nonce word created specifically for that one occasion to communicate a new idea. Sometimes nonce words become neologisms and become used by others. Sometimes not.

The accent on the 'e' is not a native English spelling. It is presumably intended by the author to change the more modest sounding 'research', to give the feel of a French word, which in English writing has a connotation of higher class or fanciness or highborn.

Searching google books for occurrences of 'résearch' finds nothing:

google ngrams for English

Likewise, searching French sources finds no evidence of a French word. The actual French translation of 'research' is 'recherches'.

google ngrams for French

Just because google ngrams doesn't find anything doesn't mean it doesn't exist (it's not searching web pages). But it's a good indication that it is either rare or not accepted by most people as a repeatable word.

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  • Do you think the French feel was intended as a positive addition? It feels from the quote that it is intended negatively (thought I'm far from certain on that point), but if the connotation is negative, recherché seems to be a better fit (in the vein of what we discussed above).
    – njc
    Commented Apr 12, 2018 at 16:01
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To my understanding, the writer means that Gibbs, who died in 1903, did research when there was very little history of physics research in the United States, before the physics revolution (relativity and quantum mechanics) of the early twentieth century, before scientific research became a full-fledged salaried career, before there existed a competitive job market for academic research, when scientific research had more in common with the natural philosophy of the 1600s and 1700s than it did with the modern-day research-industrial complex funded by government and private industry, and when science was still mostly a leisure pursuit of individual scholars rather than a professional endeavor of large teams.

The accent mark and italicization stands for an affected pronunciation that carries connotations of pretension, as opposed to the humbler, less self-referential enterprise of earlier generations.

The writer, Edwin Bidwell Wilson, wrote this in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, to an audience likely to understand how the discipline of scientific research was changing at the beginning of the twentieth century. I don't think it's fair to say it's bad writing.

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