This weekend’s New York Times Magazine On Language column, written by Ben Zimmer (in for Sir Safire) looks at what Zimmer calls “the age of undoing,” the preponderance of backformed words created by tacking a convenient un- to the front of everything.
The article begins:
“What’s done cannot be undone,” moaned Lady Macbeth in her famous sleepwalking scene. If she woke up in the 21st century, she would be pleased to discover that whatever can be done can be undone, too.
Or perhaps it just seems that way in the new social spaces we are carving for ourselves online. On popular Web sites devoted to social networking, innovative verbs have been springing up to describe equally innovative forms of interaction: you can friend someone on Facebook; follow a fellow user on Twitter; or favorite a video on YouTube. Change your mind? You can just as easily unfriend, unfollow or unfavorite with a click of the mouse.
The recent un- trend has also seeped into the world of advertising. KFC is marketing its new Kentucky Grilled Chicken with the tagline “UNthink: Taste the UNfried Side of KFC.” The cellphone company MetroPCS challenges you to “Unlimit Yourself,” while its competitor Boost Mobile wants you to get “UNoverage’D” and “UNcontract’D” (ridding yourself of burdensome overage fees and contracts). Even victims of the financial downturn can seek solace in un-: ABC broadcast a special report in May telling viewers how to get “Un-Broke.”
It goes on to trace the un-ing of words back to some linguistic genesis, one rooted largely in the electronic world. Forsooth, there once was a time when the “Undo” command was novel. But what interests me more than their digital-etymological rise are the cultural connotations of these words, and what they signify beyond their definitions.
Take, first, Zimmer’s advertising and ABC examples: UNfried, UNlimit, UNoverage’D, UNcontract’D and Un-Broke. What I see here is more than clever marketing, but the display of a pervading sense of dissatisfaction. Typically, branding serves consumers (that’s us) with aspirational images. Beer will make you cool and popular, makeup will make you beautiful, etcetera, ad infinitum. Buy this, become better. But these un- slogans are not about becoming what you want; they’re about un-becoming what you are and wish you weren’t.
Budweiser would never tell you that you have no friends, and Cover Girl will never call you ugly. What KFC and the cell companies and ABC have done here is to highlight the very things that plague you daily — unhealthful food, being hemmed in by your expensive telecom agreement, being fucking poor — and offered you a way out. Unlike in classic advertising, acknowledging, rather than circumventing acknowledgment of your shortcomings is integral to the messages’ success.
In order to really understand the Facebook and YouTube concepts of unfriending and unfavoriting, one must first accept that the definitions of the root words — friend and favorite — are not the same as they are in the real world. First of all, neither “friend” nor “favorite” is a verb. But we’ll pretend for the sake of argument that they both are: “to friend” means to become friends with, and “to favorite” is to select as your most preferred. A friend is more than an acquaintance, and a friendship is something that builds over time, based on a foundation of mutual interest, respect and support. A favorite, meanwhile, is what you hold in your esteem as the number one of some category — or at least one of the top three or five.
Of course, in the world of video sharing and online social networking, these definitions are inapplicable. A friend is someone you know, however tangentially, and a favorite is something that amused you at least once. Such non-commitment makes reversal a fairly trivial ordeal. To dissolve a friendship in the traditional sense assumes the breaking of meaningful bonds. Not so in a Facebook world, where becoming someone’s “friend” is easier and less involved than exchanging business cards — and ending a friendship is, unless you’re making a point, rarely worth the effort of the click it would take to do so.
In a larger context, our new language of un- is a cheeky attempt at undermining adversarial forces, a futile denial of hardships, and the fabrication a more comfortable, less challenging un-reality.