James A. Landau
JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Tue Oct 29 15:59:55 UTC 2002
In a message dated 10/28/02 1:18:23 PM Eastern Standard Time,
mam at THEWORLD.COM writes:
> with list servers like ADS-L ["unsub"] means "unsubscribe, cancel
> subscription". I've used it that way in speech.
This usage can be traced back, facetiously of course, to George Orwell's
_1984_ in which, for some reason I don't recall, the totalitarians deplored
English's lack of exact antonyms. To cure this, they created words like
Back to "unsubcribe". There is a subtle difference between "to unsubscribe"
and "to cancel a subscription". If you paid for a subscription to something
and you CANCEL that subscription, then most likely you will either not be
reimbursed or you will be reimbursed but only for the unused portion of your
subscription. That is, cancelling a paid subscription does NOT restore the
status quo ante, specifically, you are out of pocket a certain amount of
Of course there are things you can subscribe to for free, and it is always
possible that the manager of the subscription list may, figuring the gain in
good will outweighs the financial loss, grant you an unsolicited full refund.
However, when you "cancel a subscription" there is the CONNOTATION that you
have undergone some permanent
change of state, which the cancellation has modified but not removed.
"To unsubscribe" has a different connotation, namely that no permanent change
has been performed or "rendered" upon you. At least in computer jargon or
among speakers influenced by computer jargon, that is the connotation. If
you "unsubscribe", then the subcription manager wipes the slate clean and no
permanent change of state has occurred to you (specifically, if you paid,
then you receive a full refund, with interest, so that your finances are
For an analogy, consider the difference between a divorce, which recognizes
that the marriage has failed and takes actions to settle financial and legal
results of the marriage, and an annulment which (lawyers PLEASE correct me if
I'm wrong) states that the marriage never existed. I am told that a child
born of an annulled marriage will have a father but no legal mother or vice
versa (supposedly a number of years ago there was one state in which
annulments were much easier to get than divorces, resulting in a number of
children of the annulled marriages who legally had only one parent.)
Yes, I'm taking a personal opinion on connotations into unreasonable reaches,
but I'd like to use the above to illustrate something.
Bureaucracies have always had the problem of changing an action once that
action had been performed. Ending a marriage by divorce is an obvious
example. In the Middle Ages, in fact until the French Revolution, marriages
among royal and noble houses were frequently used as the formal means to
commit two houses to an alliance etc---"Tu, felix Austria, nube". But what
if the alliance fell apart or new events made a different alliance necessary?
It would be necessary to have a divorce to formally end the alliance (and,
more practically, to produce eligible marriage partners for the new
alliance.) However, the Catholic Church did not allow divorces, but there
was a legal loophole: a marriage could be annulled if it were found to have
been within "the prohibited degrees of consanguinity". The royal houses of
Europe were of course so interbred that the consanguinity rule could most
often be used (but probably due to Spanish influence in Rome, the Pope
refused to let Henry VIII use that argument to get rid of Catherine of
Any bureaucracy faces daily the problem of taking an action already performed
and not only reversing the action but also restoring the status quo ante.
This means that some bureaucrat (for a major action, a large team of
bureaucrats) has to pull all the papers, make the necessary corrections,
etc---a less routine process than filling out and filing all the papers on
the original action.
Now a properly programmed computer is, among other things, the perfect
bureaucracy. Any transaction performed (e.g. adding you to a listserve) can
be reversed and the status quo ante restored (removing you from the
listserve. If you never posted to the list, not only will the listserve have
no record of your existence, neither will the list archives).
Since computers are perfect bureaucracies, there is a need for a term to
describe such a routine perfect reversal of a transaction. There are in fact
two such terms, or in fact sets of terms..
The first set, which is not used by the general public, has only one member:
"backing out a transaction." The second set consists of various
transaction-describing verbs preceded, 1984-style, but the prefix "un-".
Examples: undo, undelete, unperform, and of course unsubscribe.
- James A. Landau
FAA Technical Center (ACB-510/BCI)
Atlantic City Int'l Airport NJ 08405 USA
P.S. My favorite bureaucratic word: "to non-concur". "I non-concur with
this document" = "I disagree with the statements in this document, and if you
publish this document as currently written it is over my written objection."
Should this usage be classified as a "fossilized split infinitive"?
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