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I (American English) am a plaintiff in a lawsuit taking place in Malta (UK English) that involves some British people as well as some Americans.

When cross-examining a British person, many of his replies were:

I do not recollect.

I assumed that he meant I do not remember.

To my ears, it sounds like it's linked to memory collection, etc. But I found the expression rather odd, and I've never heard it before.

  • Is recollect sometimes used in American English as well?
  • Does it have any differences with remember?

Can anyone shine a light on the use of that verb?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Jul 4, 2022 at 22:56

3 Answers 3

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I assumed that he meant I do not remember.

Maybe, but what he said is I can not remember. Recollect sets the bar a tiny bit higher than remember. Remember admits a passive meaning that recollect does not. Recollect means you tried to remember. The distinction appears in several legal definitions. Black's definition of mislay is "To deposit in a place not afterwards recollected; to lose anything by forgetfulness of the place where it was laid."

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  • How about providing a reference for the meaning of recollect you're using? I looked in some dictionaries and found something different: that recollect = remember. Jul 6, 2022 at 2:49
  • Another (grammatical) difference is that "recollect" does not usually take an infinitive dependent. E.g., I can "remember" to turn off the stove, but I would not normally "recollect" to turn off the stove. Jul 13, 2022 at 6:48
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This is a perfectly normal word that any educated native speaker with a normal vocabulary is going to know without thinking — no matter their country of origin.

Per this ngram of the last fifty years, it is even more common in fiction than in nonfiction, and has no notable British bias.

ngram of recollect

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    Are we allowed to say educated speaker? Ha ha. Some time ago, I referred to uneducated speakers and the PC hand from the sky tried to strike me down.
    – Lambie
    Jul 4, 2022 at 16:23
  • @Lambie - I guess when you pass 100k and have put in one-quarter as much service here at tchrist, you may be given more leeway. But don't forget to flag when you detect a problematic post or comment. Jul 6, 2022 at 23:09
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    @aparente001 Personally, I see no problem with saying that. After all, it is the truth. There are educated and uneducated people. The idea is to help everyone get an education and not repress the fact some are not.
    – Lambie
    Jul 7, 2022 at 14:28
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Remember and recollect are actually not as closely comparable as recollect and recall, so it seems reasonable to consider how different reference works deal with each of these three terms.

Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1942) compares remember, recollect, and recall as follows:

Remember, recollect, recall, remind, reminisce, bethink, mind are not as a group synonymous terms, although they all carry as their basic meaning to put one (often oneself) in mind of something. Remember, except in a few idiomatic expressions such as "remember me to him" (i.e., put me and my regard for him in his mind) and in older literary use (as "Remembering them the truth of what they themselves know"—Milton), now implies a putting oneself in mind of something. The term in current use carries so strong an implication of keeping in one's memory that it often implies no conscious effort or willing; as, he remembers every detail of that occurrence as though it happened yesterday; "The average reader of the newspaper or short story reads to forget, not to remember" (C. W. Eliot); "Years—so many of them that no one remembered the exact number" (R. Bradford). Recollect (which is distinguished from re-collect only in pronunciation and in bearing a more specific significance) etymologically presupposes a scattering and implies a gathering of that which has been scattered: it is distinguished from remember in presupposing a letting go from rather than a retaining in one's memory and therefore implies a bringing back, sometimes with effort, to one's own mind that which has not been in it for an appreciable period of time; as, "She tried to recollect some instance of goodness, some distinguished trait of integrity or benevolence, that might rescue him from the attacks of Mr. Darcy" (Austen); "Beasts and babies remember, that is, recognize: man alone recollects (Coleridge); ... Recall often comes close to recollect in implying volition or an effort to bring back what has been forgotten, but it differs from recollect in suggesting a summons rather than a process of process of thought; often, also, it connotes a telling of that which is brought back; as, "Let me recall a case within my own recent experience" (Mencken); ...

S. I. Hayakawa, Modern Guide to Synonyms and Related Words (1968) has this:

remember, memorize, recall, recollect, remind, reminisce, retain review These words refer to the act of summoning up the past, to its spontaneous cropping up in the mind, or to the fixing of present data in the memory for future reference. Remember can refer generally to any mental glance at the past, voluntary or involuntary: He caught himself remembering how his first wife would have cooked the same meal; struggling to remember where he had been at the time the murder took place. But often the word specifically suggests the staying power of a vivid past event or circumstance: I can still remember every detail in my old dormitory room at college. Recall is more formal than remember and more often indicates a voluntary summoning up of the past, whether silently for oneself or verbally for others. {He recalled his last evening with his fiancee whenever he felt depressed; In his closing speech to the jury, the prosecutor recalled the mass of incriminating evidence he had developed during the trial.} But unlike remember, the word can refer to something in the present that resembles and therefore calls up something in the past; a view that recalled to him the fishing village he had stayed in during the war. ...

When used interchangeably with recall, recollect can have a regional flavor: I don't rightly recollect when I saw her last. But the word can apply without this flavor to the act of casting one's mind back over past events in a leisurely and ruminative manner, whether silently to oneself or verbally to others. The word can suggest the active process of piecing together dimly remembered and half-forgotten details: He settled back with great relish and began to recollect those battles in the war that he had witnessed first-hand.

Adrian Room, The Penguin Dictionary of Confusibles (1979) addresses the relationship between remember and recollect somewhat tangentially, in an entry that focuses on how recollect and recall differ:

recall/recollect (remember) To 'recall' is to remember something specifically, and usually clearly, as one 'recalls' an occasion, someone's face, or a promise made. To 'recollect' is to 'recall' with an effort, the implication being that one has to 'collect' or 'muster' one's thoughts. The two verbs are often used indiscriminately as mock-bookish alternatives for 'remember': 'I don't recall the occasion.'


Discussion

These three reference works do not entirely agree on the particular implications of each term, but they generally support the idea that remember involves the least preparatory effort, whereas both recall and recollect are more strongly directed and volitional, with recall entailing a summoning to mind and recollect suggesting a gathering up in the mind from scattered or locations or fragmentary memories.

In everyday use, I doubt that most people put that much thought into their choice of remember versus recollect versus recall. As Adrian Room observes, most English speakers tend to use remember when not inclined to indulge in what he calls "mock-bookish" speech, although I have no doubt that some people habitually use recall or recollect instead of remember for even the most pedestrian instances of finding something in their memories.

Court testimony is, of course, a great occasion for mock-bookish formality—and in any case, the implied mental focus of "I do not recall" or "I do not recollect" may make the witness's effort to undertake a serious search of memory seem more determined and comprehensive than "I do not remember" would. But as for whether a typical judge or jury would pick up on that nuance, I cannot say; my suspicion is that they probably wouldn't.

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    +1. 1) 'bethink'? I've never bethought or beheard that word in my life. 2) "recollect can have a regional flavor" - euphemistically 'the region is 'backwoods'
    – Mitch
    Jul 13, 2022 at 13:38

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