Correct Use of the Adjective “Reincarnate”

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The word reincarnate used as an adjective is extremely popular with writers who comment on politics and entertainment. Many of the ways in which the word is used, however, are questionable.

First, some definitions.

Incarnate is related to the Latin word for flesh (caro). To incarnate is to enter into a fleshly body. The Incarnation is the Christian doctrine that God inhabited a human body as Jesus. Pre-Christian belief included the belief that a god could walk the earth in human form.

The religious concept of reincarnation is the belief that when a human body dies, the spirit that inhabited it is reborn into another body.

As an adjective, incarnate often follows a noun and means “in the flesh.” Ex. Some regarded Hitler as the devil incarnate.

Like incarnate, the adjective reincarnate is almost always placed after the noun it describes. Ex. Many believed that John the Baptist was Elijah reincarnate. As an adjective reincarnate means “reincarnated.”

Here are some examples of reincarnate from the web. Some are used incorrectly.

1. Palin may well be Dick Cheney’s reincarnate.

2. The big question: Is G.W. Bush the reincarnate of our lord and savior?

3. Look at GOP’s embrace of Sarah Palin – a Bush reincarnate – as its future savior.

4. Bush essentially describes himself as a reincarnate of Harry Truman.

5. But what if she’s pregnant with the Michael Jackson reincarnate?

6. I don’t know anyone, liberal or conservative, that thinks Michelle Obama is some kind of Jackie Kennedy reincarnate.

7. Hoping in vain to be perceived as John F. Kennedy reincarnate, in the summer of 1999 Bill Clinton…

8. From the beginning I have said that this hot young man must be Elvis reincarnate.

9. If Bush pardoned someone who re-offended, the Times would run 47 front page stories on the person and act like he was Son of Sam reincarnate.

10. Bush’s agenda to reincarnate NATO, inspired by the Wolfowitz document, is key to this oil strategy.

Items 1-5 use reincarnate as if it were a noun. The noun form is reincarnation.
Dick Cheney’s reincarnation (the possessive calls for a noun)
the reincarnation of our lord and savior (the article the calls for a noun)
a Bush reincarnation (the article a calls for a noun)
a reincarnation of Harry Truman. (ditto)
the reincarnation of Michael Jackson (see number 2.)

NOTE: Strictly speaking, for a person to be somebody else “reincarnate,” the somebody in question should be dead. We can suggest that someone is “Truman reincarnate,” or “Michael Jackson reincarnate,” because Truman and Jackson are dead. In the case of the living, like Cheney and Bush, a play on the word “clone” might be more apt. To suggest that someone is a living person “reincarnate” conjures up the spooky idea of two spirits inhabiting one body.

Items 6-8 use the adjective reincarnate correctly.

Item 9 is iffy. In one sense “Son of Sam” is still alive in the person of lifer David Berkowitz. On the other hand, the murderer “Son of Sam” is presumably “dead,” i.e., off the streets. “Son of Sam reincarnate” works, but the writer could have come up with a murderer who, like the Wicked Witch of the East, is not only merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.

Item 10 uses reincarnate as a verb. The questionable use here is not that NATO is not a fleshly body inhabitable by a spirit. Reincarnate and its forms are often used figuratively. What’s wrong here is that NATO never “died.” If NATO had been dissolved and then a new organization formed under a new name to include the old Soviet bloc, reincarnate would be appropriate. ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), for example, is busily “reincarnating” under various new names in the different states.

Bottom line: don’t confuse the post-positional adjective reincarnate with the noun reincarnation.

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4 thoughts on “Correct Use of the Adjective “Reincarnate””

  1. Strange. Although I’m familiar with “incarnate” as an adjective, I’d never noticed “reincarnate” used that way – and Concise Oxford English Dictionary only lists it as a noun. Maybe it’s an Americanism that has yet to reach our shores. (Personally, I’d prefer to append a “d”, i.e. use it as a verb.)

  2. This post started out as a complaint about the use of “reincarnate” as I’d never seen it used that way before. Then I looked it up in the OED, found an entry for it, and decided that it’s probably justifiable in some contexts. In my own writing I’d probably go with the pp “reincarnated” too, unless I wanted to sound a bit poetic.

  3. I think in the sense of “Truman reincarnate” or “John Lennon reincarnate” and the like, the celebrity name works as the adjective and the word “reincarnate” is a noun, just as “reprobate” is noun meaning a depraved, unprincipled, or wicked person; “inmate” is a person who is confined in a prison, hospital, etc., and “initiate” is a person who has been initiated. “Reincarnate” is one who has been reincarnated, so a “John Lennon reincarnate” is a reincarnate who re-embodies John Lennon, just as a “big, ol'” reincarnate, is one who is embodied in a large and ancient body. Imagine there’s no people!

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