We've Come Undone
The short history of an untrend
By Ryan Bigge
—Ralph Wiggum, The Simpsons
Me fail English? That's unpossible!
Bridezilla. Man-crush. Affluenza. Va-jay-jay. Frankenfood. Crackberry. There are plenty of vogue words that jockey for position on WordSpy.com, the lexical equivalent of the Billboard Top 50.
While most neologisms have a half-life of weeks, some survive infancy, manage to become part of the lexicon proper and are eventually even recognized by spell-check. Through overuse, some new words, such as the infamous "metrosexual," even earn the ignominy of appearing on Matt Groening's annual list of forbidden words, published in his comic strip "Life in Hell." (Past winners include "tofurkey," "blogosphere," "monetize," "synergy" and "phat.")
There is nothing out of the ordinary about the birth and death of fad lingo, a linguistic cycle akin to Hula Hoops or Crocs. But a vogue prefix? Now that's a little more un-usual. The untrend first went mainstream in 2002 with Ikea's Unböring Manifesto, and the last few years have given us "unmortgages," "unconsumption," "undesign"—even "unwords." And that's only the start.
Steven Hall's 2007 novel The Raw Shark Texts, includes something called unspace, described as "the labelless car parks, crawl tunnels, disused attics and cellars, bunkers, maintenance corridors, derelict industrial estates boarded-up houses," and on and on, concluding with, "the pockets of no-name-places under manhole covers and behind the overgrow of railway sidings."
Meanwhile, unschooling is experiencing a resurgence, along with ungifting and unconferences. I could keep unspooling examples such as these for many more paragraphs, but that would be unwise and undoubtedly uninteresting. I'll conclude my list of examples with a mention of the ultimate untitled unbook, UN, Dennis Lee's 2003 collection of avant-garde poetry.
Why has "un-" become the prefix of the moment? Perhaps because we live in an undo culture, thanks to computer software that allows us to retrace our steps by hitting CRTL-Z. Our ability to reverse our mistakes with impunity is not only a digital convenience, it's a metaphor for our ideal relationship with the world at large.
Or perhaps, in our continuing efforts to distinguish ourselves from the herd, we seek out new, fresh experiences that require a radical inversion of traditional approaches and outcomes. We've become jaded seen-it-alls, tired of the predictable, always seeking out the opposite, be it undesign or untourism. Thus, the "un-" prefix has become shorthand for an idiosyncratic, thinking-outside-the-unbox approach.
Sociocultural guesswork aside, it is clear that "un-" bends the eye and the ear in an effective manner, thus calling attention to itself. At the very least, its frequency of use justifies this unarticle.
Our obsession with the opposite, at least in an advertising context, can be traced back to 7UP, which, starting in the late 1960s, advertised its effervescent little bottle with the slogan, "There's no cola like the Uncola."
With television and print ads that played with the prefix ("The un and only"; "Un in a million"), Uncola was a clever campaign. But for Ben Yagoda, professor of journalism at the University of Delaware and author of When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It, using "un-" today is, well, a little unoriginal. Reached via email, Yagoda argues that Uncola "was clever at the time, but 'the unmortgage' 30 years later is not."
They might roll off our tongues somewhat awkwardly, but words such as "ungifting" (giving donations instead of presents at Christmas) and "unconference" (a gathering at which participants determine the content of sessions) are grammatically kosher for word-nerd Yagoda.
At their worst, he suggests, such unwords "come off as kind of self-consciously cute," similar to the use of the suffix "-age" on TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer (e.g., "slayage," "sparkage," "kissage").
Unlike a particular word, there appears to be less danger of wearing out "un-," given its promiscuity. Caution, of course, must still be exercised, lest the double negative make its appearance.
In the pilot episode of Pushing Daisies, protagonist Ned admonishes his new business partner, Emerson Cod, for using the words "zombie" and "undead." "Nobody wants to be un-anything," Ned says, "Why begin a statement with a negative? It's like saying, 'I don't disagree.' Just say you agree."
His witty banter would please the late George Orwell, who famously waged war against the double negative in his 1946 essay "Politics and the English Language." As Orwell wrote, in a footnote, "One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field."
And so, this article has reached its unbeginning.
• A place to find and create new words: www.unwords.com
• Socially conscious graphic design inspired by the late Tibor Kalman: www.undesign.org
• Gossip blog for design professionals: mediabistro.com/unBeige
• The Unsuggester, a website that inverts Amazon.com's recommendation engine: www.librarything.com/unsuggester
• "Unconsumption" is Rob Walker's term for the psychological and ethical dilemmas that are raised when we get rid of stuff: www.murketing.com
• An Unquiet Mind, Kay R. Jamison
• unChristian, David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons
• The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby
• "It became uneconomical for us to continue." Teri Everett of Murdoch's News Corp., referring to the proposed purchase of Newsday. (Newsday.com, May 10, 2008.)
• "Do not raise hands on women. You are Muslims. This is un-Islamic." (Benazir Bhutto, describing a police barricade, as reported by the Associated Press, Nov. 9, 2007.)
• "The book is also a further unpacking of Mr. Gessen's personal philosophy on the proper function of the novel: to hold up an honest mirror to society, no matter how frivolous and unserious that society may be." (New York Times, Dave Itzkoff, April 27, 2008, article about Keith Gessen's book, All the Sad Young Literary Men.)
• "Pure Unevil" is a song from last year's self-titled album by the Liars.
• A recent issue of Adbusters features short polemics about "unman" ("a useless anti-nymph . . . the reigning champion of the domesticated") and "unwoman" ("the narcissistic manifestation of a designer's social paranoia").
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