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Understanding un-

Recently I had occasion to use the word unsaid, as in what goes unsaid. Looking at that phrase later, I began to ponder the related verb unsay, which means something different.  What is unsaid is not said, but to unsay something means to retract it. The same not-quite-parallelism holds for unseen and unsee and unheard and unhear. Sometimes un- means not and sometimes it means to reverse.

The pattern, as linguists will tell you, has to do with using a word as a verb versus using it as an adjective.  To un– a verb is to reverse the action of something: to undress, untie, unzip, unfold, unpackuntuck, untwist, unroll, unveil, unwrap, undo, and many more. Adding un– to a verb was a favorite trick of Shakespeare’s yielding such words as to unsex, to uncurse, and to unshout.

To un- an adjective is to negate the quality described by the adjective: unabridged, unacceptable, unanswered, unbalanced, uncommon, unlucky, untidy, untrue, unwritten, and so on. Some of these adjectives are just un- plus a straight-up adjective—acceptable, common, lucky, tidy, true. Others are made from the past participle of the related verb: abridged, answered, balanced, written. In each case, the meaning is “not” rather than “reverse.” An unabridged dictionary is not one in which words have been put back in, but one in which they are not left out. An unanswered question is not one receiving a bogus answer, but one getting no answer.

The story of un- gets tricky though because sometimes past participles serve as verbs, which allows ambiguity: The box was unpackedThe baby was undressed. The jacket was unzipped. The gift was unwrapped.  

Each of these has an adjectival sense, in which the box was not packed, the baby was not dressed, the jacket was not zipped, the gift not wrapped. But each also has a reversed sense in which some unnamed person is unpacking the box, undressing the baby, unzipping the jacket, or unwrapping the gift. Of course, sometimes only one meaning is possible, as in (the classic example) Antarctica is uninhabited, which cannot mean that someone is uninhabiting Antarctica.

The Oxford English Dictionary 2018 update gives nearly 300 un- plus adjective combination, including unadult, unblasé, unsorry, and un-with-it. Nouns with un- are usually derived from adjectives, so they carry the sense of not rather than reversal: uneasiness, untruth, and so on.

Curiously, in a handful of words un– seems unnecessary but shows up anyway. The most widely used is unloose/unloosen, which the OED attests as early as the fourteenth century. Perhaps analogy with other un-verbs (untie, unfastenunleash) is a factor in the unnoticed redundancy. Unthaw, meaning to thaw out, is attested as early as 1700, and today may even be heard in your own kitchen.

Unravelling unravel is trickier. Ravel it turns out is a contranym: a word which can mean either entangle or disentangle. So the un- of unravel does some work here, disentangling the senses of the root.

And finally, some instances of un- are mere historical vestiges. Uncouth and unkempt began as the prefixed words uncūth meaning “unfamiliar” and unkemd meaning “uncombed.” As the meanings shifted, the roots cūth and kemd became obscured and today we longer view uncouth and unkempt as prefixed forms at all.  

So the next time you use an un- word, pause for a second and mentally take the word apart. You may find the experience uncanny.

Featured image by Adam Valstar

Recent Comments

  1. Roger ALLEN

    George Orwell’s sentence to discourage over-use of “not un-” formations is worth remembering: “A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.”
    On the other hand, the best example of it being used well is the end of Philip Larkins poem “Talking in Bed”:
    “It becomes still more difficult to find
    Words at once true and kind,
    Or not untrue and not unkind.”

  2. FredRyan

    So interesting …. thank you! Have you considered the use of “pre” in any of your columns? Drives me crazy the way this prefix is attached, willy-nilly, to almost any verb, noun or adverb ….

  3. Bubal Tamir

    “Unthaw, meaning to thaw out, is attested as early as 1700, and today may even be heard in your own kitchen.”
    Here is what Webster says about the unthaw:
    “Although unthaw as a synonym of thaw is sometimes cited as an illogical error, it has persisted in occasional use for more than four centuries. It occurs in both American and British English.”
    And here is what they say about irregardless:
    We define irregardless as “regardless.” Many people find irregardless to be a nonsensical word, as the ir- prefix usually functions to indicate negation; however, in this case it appears to function as an intensifier. Similar ir- words, while rare, do exist in English, including irremediless (“remediless”), irresistless (“resistless”) and irrelentlessly (“relentlessly).

    Is irregardless slang?
    We label irregardless as “nonstandard” rather than “slang.” When a word is nonstandard it means it is “not conforming in pronunciation, grammatical construction, idiom, or word choice to the usage generally characteristic of educated native speakers of a language.”

    So, both unthaw and the bundle above are constructed at variance with the established linguistic/lexical operation of affixing.
    The affix does not mean what it is said to mean elsewhere.
    This is not about lack of education, as per Webster.
    It is about sheer dumbness on the part of the linguists who don’t strike these aberrations out of the lexicon.
    Unless they propose a lemma to the operation – to the effect that exceptions strengthen the rule, and do list those exceptions – linguistics is more aberrant than most of the “scholarly” pursuits.

  4. […] The un- word […]

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