"Unring" Not in OED

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Nov 27 17:55:10 UTC 2007

At 4:14 PM +0000 11/27/07, ronbutters at aol.com wrote:
>This is helpful, Jesse, and
>As a devoted user, I am all for inclusiveness & 
>delighted that you intend to add "unring."
>  I know that this is a subject that was much 
>discussed in pr e-internet days,  but I'm 
>wondering how (if at all) the now-indefinitely 
>large size of OED changes anything. Seems to me 
>a topic ripe for a DICTIONARIES article.
>I'm also wondering just what "currency" 
>means--you cite age as important, but "unring" 
>has not been around very long & 69,000 Google 
>hits is not really a lot, especially if (as 
>Larry says) the cliche (I resist calling it a 
>proverb) is largely confined to legal contexts 
>and is thus jargony.
>You don't mention likelihood of survival and 
>productivity as criteria--hard to estimate, I 
>know, but surely relevant. I'd agree that "You 
>can't unring a bell" is likely to be around for 
>a while, but I wonder if it will spread to other 
>environments (e.g., "The fat lady can,t unsing 
>the last song," "You can't unfuck a deflowered 
>virgin"-though maybe "you can't unconfess your 
>crime"), though my guess is that "unsay" in 
>pretty much this same sense has been around for 
>a long time (You can't unsay an insult") . Maybe 
>"unring" is an extensuon of that? In which case 
>"unsay" would be a good place to add "unring" in 
>the updated OED?

I've collected a bunch of these, including 
"unknow", "unboil" ("You can't unboil an egg"), 
and "unhappen".  One key difference is that 
"unhappen", say, is recreated as a nonce form (or 
as Jesse says, an independent coinage) each time 
it's used, based on the lexical process involved, 
while "unring [the bell]" is indeed a proverb (or 
cliché, if you insist).  (Maybe "You can't unboil 
an egg" does result from a snowclone spinoff from 
"unring the bell".)  The formation is especially 
popular in song:

Un-break my heart
Say you'll love me again
Undo this hurt you caused
When you walked out the door
And walked outta my life
Un-cry these tears
I cried so many nights
Un-break my heart

--Toni Braxton, "Un-break my Heart"

You can't uncry the tears that you've cried
You can't unshoot that gun
You can't unlive the life that you've lived
You gotta go on, go on

--Pam Gadd, "Go On"

cf. Lucinda Williams, "Unsuffer Me", and no doubt others.


>------Original Message------
>From: Jesse Sheidlower
>To: ronbutters at AOL.COM
>Cc: ADS-L
>Sent: Nov 26, 2007 11:58 PM
>Subject: Re: [ADS-L] "Unring" Not in OED
>On Tue, Nov 27, 2007 at 01:54:04AM +0000, ronbutters at AOL.COM wrote:
>>  I wonder what the criteria are for listing prefixed words
>>  when they are semantically transparent?
>The main criterion, for this and most other things, is simply
>currency. No, we can't put in every _non-_, _re-_, or _un-_
>word that comes along, but the ones that have been in regular
>use for centuries are likely to make the cut.
>I think that _unring_ certainly deserves to be included,
>because of the frequency of the proverb.
>Jesse Sheidlower
>Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry
>The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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