How come you can “recreate” something (like a Civil War battle) and it would be a “RE-creation,” but when you go play tennis (or whatever) it’s “WRECK-reation?” Are they different words or just the same word pronounced differently?
— Stanley, North Park
To answer this one, you have to go all the way back to Medieval times and the years of Middle English. We first got the word “recreation” from French (via the French-sih Anglo-Normans in the 14th Century. It originally referred to “a process of creating anew,” but could be extended to cover any sustaining act. Meals and rest could be referred to as “recreations” by virtue of their nourishing properties, which were thought to create anew the body and soul. It’s from that root that we get the idea of “recreational activities,” the idea being that barbecues and games of horseshoes nourish the spirit.
There’s a key difference between that meaning and the usage of recreate (with a long e) that denotes replication and reconstruction. That form of the word doesn’t show up until hundreds of years later and it’s almost always used with a hyphen after the first syllable. That hyphen is responsible for elongating the initial vowel, which linguistics tells us should otherwise be in short form. It’s not until the 20th Century that you see the hyphen start to slip away when people gained enough confidence in contextual inference to tell the difference between the two words.