The Grammarphobia Blog

Etymology unloosed

Q: I’ve read that the prefix “un-” sometimes serves to intensify rather than to negate, but the only example I know of is “unloose,” meaning to loosen or set free. Are there others? And, if so, are there rules for the usage?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary considers this use of “un-” to be redundant rather than intensifying.

Although the redundant “un-” isn’t seen much now, it’s quite old, with roots in Anglo-Saxon times.

The Old English words liesan and unliesan, for example, meant, among other things, to set free.

“The redundant use of un- is rare, but occurs in Old English unliesan, and Middle English unloose, which has succeeded in maintaining itself,” the OED says.

The earliest citation for “unloose” in the OED is from Piers Plowman, the 14th-century allegorical poem by William Langland.

But let’s skip Langland’s Middle English and go with an example from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida (circa 1602):

“Sweet, rouse yourself; and the weak wanton Cupid / Shall from your neck unloose his amorous fold.” (We’ve expanded the OED citation.)

The dictionary gives several examples of this “un-” usage that are now considered obsolete, rare, or dialectal.

In the 17th century, the verb “unsolve” meant to solve. And from the 16th to the early 20th centuries, “unstrip” meant to strip.  From the 16th to the 19th centuries, “unbare” meant to lay bare.

In some modern dialects, according to the OED, “unempt” means to empty  and “unthaw” to thaw.

One redundant (or perhaps extended) example of “un-” that’s seen a lot today is the use of “unpeel” to mean peel off.

The earliest example of this usage in the OED is from a 1904 letter by the philosopher and psychologist William James:

“The original ‘that’ may vanish in the infinitely regressive superposition of human ‘whats’—we can’t today unpeel them wholly.”

(We wrote postings in November and December of 2009 that discussed word pairs like “peel”/“unpeel,” “thaw”/“unthaw,” “bone”/“debone,” and others.)

Are there rules, you ask, for using “un-” this way? We don’t know of any, which is understandable, considering the rarity of the usage.

Check out our books about the English language