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.