The Grammarphobia Blog

Two thawful usages

Q: Are “dethaw” and “unthaw” words? They don’t make sense to me, yet I hear both of them. Hearing and believing = two separate things.

A: Well, you won’t find them in standard dictionaries, but as you point out a lot of people use them. I got more than 52,000 hits when a googled “dethaw” and over 31,000 for “unthaw.”

Are they words? Yes. Are they standard English? No. Or maybe I should say not yet. English is a living language, but I wouldn’t put any money on these newbies.

I can find only two references that have entries for them: Urban Dictionary, whose definitions are written by readers, and WordNet, “a large lexical database” put together by linguists, computer scientists, and psychologists at Princeton.

What people mean when they use “dethaw” and “unthaw” is “thaw.” If these terms made sense, however, they would mean the opposite of “thaw” – that is, “refreeze.”

Of course English doesn’t always make sense. That’s why you don’t need a hammer and saw to make your bed in the morning.

My guess is that “dethaw” is a mistaken combination of “defrost” and “thaw.” For example, someone wonders how to quickly defrost or thaw a chicken, so he asks, “How do I quickly dethaw a chicken?”

People make similar mistakes when they use “unpeel” and “unloosen” and “I’m still unpacked” (for “I’m still packed”).

The verb “thaw” comes from old Germanic sources and has been in English since roughly the year 1000. It originally meant to turn a frozen substance (like ice or snow) back into a liquid by raising its temperature.

In the 1500s, it also came to mean to unfreeze a nonliquid substance (like a chicken). And if you want to know how to quickly thaw or defrost a chicken, you’ll have to go to a different source!

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.