I suspect most native English speakers never realize that the prefix un- is actually two unrelated prefixes, both of which sometimes get attached to the same word. Consider these two sentences:

(1) I tried to carry out all the tasks on my list, but some remained undone.

(2) As soon as the new leader took office, he quickly saw to it that the previous leader’s excesses were undone.

The un- in (1) means ‘not,’ while the un- in (2) adds the sense ‘reversed, counteracted.’ Granted, there’s some semantic overlap, because to reverse an action is in some sense to negate it, to leave it not being as it was. In fact that partial semantic overlap has influenced the development of one of the prefixes and may account for the fact that so many native speakers conflate the two.

The un- that means ‘not’ traces back to the Indo-European negative *ne, which also gave rise to the negative Latin prefix in– (with assimilating variants im-, il-, and ir-). The counteracting un- arose from the Indo-European root *ant-, whose senses were ‘front’ and ‘forehead.’ It’s surprising to realize what that root gave rise to in Latin: the prefix anti-, which meant ‘against.’ The semantics must have been that when you confront something you figuratively push your head forward into it and therefore go against it. In any case, Spanish and English have many words that incorporate the prefix anti-.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman


4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    May 09, 2016 @ 07:49:06

    I never know what’s going to come to mind when I read these posts. This morning, it was a song from the late 1960s, called “She’s Come Undun.” Despite the too-cute spelling of the title, the first verse is:

    “She’s come undone
    She didn’t know what she was headed for
    And when I found what she was headed for
    It was too late.”

    Now that I think about it, the expression “headed for” does imply that sense of moving forward into something.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 09, 2016 @ 08:32:50

      One assignment in the only anthropology course I ever took was to make a list of as many English-language expressions as possible that are based on a body part, like “head for.” A few others are “I’ve gotta hand it to you,” to get an earful,” “to nose around,” “to foot the bill.”

      I remember that song, which I must have first heard in Honduras in 1969. I never knew about the unconventional spelling of undone till now.


  2. kathryningrid
    May 09, 2016 @ 12:06:43

    I trust that if I tell you this was an unbelievably good post, you’ll know that I meant the positive version of that prefixed word! 😀


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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