Saturday, March 17, 2007


Some years ago Toni Braxton had a hit song called Unbreak My Heart. I once saw the music video on TV, while I was walking on a treadmill at the gym. The video is hot. I mean, Toni Braxton is gorgeous anyway, and in those outfits and all, she's hot. But what was most affecting was, still, the song. It drips anguish. And you hear the pain in the lyrics partly because of the unexpected use of the prefix "un-":
Unbreak my heart
Say you'll love me again
Undo this hurt you caused
When you walked out the door
And walked outta my life
Uncry these tears
I cried so many nights
Unbreak my heart, my heart
"Unbreak my heart" and "Uncry these tears" -- talk about drama and emotion! Compare, for example, to "Mend my heart" and "Dry these tears." Ho hum.

Braxton the lyricist was, in fact, following in the footsteps of a more illustrious predecessor: William Shakespeare. In The Stories of English, David Crystal analyzes the Bard's coinage of un- words: It seems that Shakespeare was the first to introduce many new un- words that are in common use today, such as uncomfortable, uneducated, and unaware. But it was his use of un- with verbs that produced the most striking results:
Unshout the noise that banished Martius

Unspeak mine own detraction

Again uncurse their souls

Unswear faith sworn

My death's sad tale may yet undeaf his ear
(From Coriolanus, Macbeth, Richard II, King John, and again Richard II, respectively.) "Unswear faith sworn" is especially poetic. I like "undeaf his ear," too.

I've been thinking about the un- prefix, about what makes it so effective, and about when it can be used. One thing I've decided is that using un- in unexpected ways is, realistically, only for grand or rhetorical speech. It would seem odd, for example, to take a sip of coffee in the break room at work, grimace, and say, "Unbrew this coffee!" You might draw some glances. On the other hand, it would be easy to picture, say, Martin Luther King saying something like "Unstrike these blows." That the unexpected un- isn't suitable for everyday use is disappointing, because I was looking forward to giving it a try.

The other thing I've decided is that the un- prefix is most powerful when used to create a verb that descibes an action which is, in a literal sense, impossible. Take Ms. Braxton's song, for example: It's not actually possible to uncry tears. Cried tears are water over the dam. Or down the cheeks. But that just intensifies the anguish: We know that she's really asking for something a little different -- to be made happy again -- but expressing it indirectly only has the effect of calling attention to it. And we wish we could uncry her tears.

Okay, so now I'm going to try my own hand at un-. Just do me a favor and imagine me having the voice and projection of Martin Luther King. Instead of, you know, how I really sound. Here I go:
Mr. President! Mr. President, unwage this war! Unmake the mockery that American has become. Untarnish the reputation of our great nation. Unshed, Mr. President, the blood of our children.

Labels: ,

surely, on 17th March 2007 you hit the mark, though, sadly, won't Unbush the presidency soon.
Maybe you'd like taking a look at

my grreetings to you,
PS I came to your website by my permanent Google Richard II alert.
Thanks, jo, for the nod to sonnet 155. Braxton's "uncry" sounds like it owes a tip to Shakespeare's "unsob."

In one of those coincidences that so often comes up on the Internet and in blogging, I happen to be reading Shakespeare's sonnets for the first time right now. I'm nowhere near up to 155, but I'll warn my five readers right now that they'll be the subject of a post when I get done.
The creepy part is that this sounds like language our president might use. Perhaps he thinks of it as unhiring US Attorneys or uncooling the earth.
maybe we, say us, can stop and start to Unamericanize the world right now...
I was most interested to read your unpost since I had just this morning started one on the use of pro. Not as in pro-choice but as in procrastinate or prodigeous. Now I will have to undo my work since your language post is so much more provocative than mine. We can not undo the unvote for Bush.

Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?