More on De- and Un-

Michael Adams MAdams1448 at AOL.COM
Mon Apr 5 22:22:09 UTC 2004

Dear Larry and others interested in these prefixes:

Here is a paragraph from "Slayer Slang," pp. 52-53, on the subject -- I can't improve on it at the moment (all typographical features dropped):

Edna Andrews recently itemized the rules for un-, not throughout the history of English, but for current use.  For instance, "The most obvious points regarding verbs prefixed by un- are: (1) each verb is transitive (except for the obsolete unbe); (2) in most cases, the verb in question inonprefixed form may double as a noun," but these rules do not apply in the case of slayer slang's unlive.  And more profoundly, un- in slayer slang sometimes ignores the following expectation: "un- cannot prefix adjectives denoting the absence of a particular quality (cf. unafraid but not *unempty)." But the un- of undead adj (in sense 3) and related forms, such as Undead-American, unDead Sea Scrolls, as well as unlazy, does precisely that. And, finally, "A general invariant meaning for un- as a verbal prefix can be stated as follows: a cancellation of the original state such that the minimal change occurs -- a simple reversal.  In adjectives, un-reverses the lexical meaning of the adjective and has no implication that the opposite state has any validity within the given speech situation." Andrews's rule for verbs (for which a good example would be unravel -- something was raveled, then it isn't, and that's the only change indicated by the un-) is ironically true:  unlive represents an exaggeratedly "minimal" change:  When one unlives, one does nearly everything one does when alive, except actually be alive."

Of course, as I point out in a note, Andrews can't be held responsible for recent examples like these:  her article was published in 1986 and based on evidence from dictionaries publihsed from the 1950s forward.  The only exception is undead, which was recorded to some degree at the time of her study.


More information about the Ads-l mailing list