OK, you know refrain, obviously. As in refrain from doing that, meaning ‘restrain yourself from doing that’ or, in common use, ‘I’m asking you not to do that again’. And as in sing the refrain, meaning ‘sing the part that you sing over and over again’. Which therefore means that refrain from singing the refrain means ‘I’m asking you not to sing the part you sing again again’.

So wait. Is the re– in refrain as in ‘restrain’ the re– that means ‘hold back’ or ‘go back’ – and thus ‘double back’ – while the re– in refrain as in ‘repeat’ is the re– that means ‘do again’ – and thus ‘double up’?

Why, yes, that’s right.

So the re and re in refrain from the refrain cancel each other out and leave us with frain from frain.

But what does frain mean?

If you look it up, you’ll see that frain (also spelled frayne and freyne) means ‘ask’. As in ‘request’ or ‘inquire’.

So does that mean refrain means ‘ask back’ as in ‘give me back the time you were going to waste doing that’ and refrain means ‘ask again’ as in ‘let’s hear that perky bit of the song again’?

I’m afrain not. Sorry, afraid not.

The re, you see, is the same re, just doubling up different ways, but the frain is really three different and unrelated frains. It’s a false frain. I mean false friend.

In refrain as in ‘hold back’, the frain traces back through French (lots of French) to Latin frænum, ‘bridle’. What you use to hold a horse back. So refrain from doing it means ‘bridle it back, don’t be so unbridled’.

In refrain as in ‘chorus’, the frain traces back through a veritable lexical money-laundering chain, but the trail seems to end in Latin frangere, ‘break’. As in ‘break off from what you were singing to sing this’ or ‘break into singing this again’.

And in frain as in ‘ask’, it’s an old Germanic root that, up another branch, became modern German fragen, ‘ask’.

I guess, therefore, ‘ask again’ could also be refrain, although I am happy to say that no one actually seems to be using it to mean that. Imagine: I refrain that you refrain from the refrain. Ugh, the third time of asking! Better just to say “I’m asking you again not to sing that chorus.” Or, you know, “Please… stop… singing… that!

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