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May 12, 2008


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Michael Quinion notes that there are many examples of reduplication of negative affixes from the 16th and 17th centuries, like unboundless, undauntless, uneffectless, unfathomless.

Nowadays we have unloose, unpick, undecipher, debone, unravel, unthaw, irradiate, where prefix is redundant, and was perhaps added for emphasis.

Like invaluable, we have imperil, endanger, immingle where the prefix acts as an emphasizer.

I'm inclined to think that adding a prefix for emphasis is a normal part of English, since we like to do it so much. And of course redundancy is an essential feature of language.

Except, of course, that "invaluable" _is_ a negation: "cannot be valued" or "beyond value". The intensification comes from the negation. The stupidest example I know of this one is "inflammable", which appears to mean precisely the same as "flammable" - perhaps from "to inflame"?

"Irradiate" means something different to "radiate", at least in science. To "radiate" means that an object gives out radation, often light - the Sun is radiant, it radiates light. To "irradiate" something means to expose it to radiation - "the sample was irradiated under an ultraviolet lamp".
Of course, that technical meaning gets lost in wider circulation, although I don't think I've ever come across it being used in this sense myself.


"irradiate" also means "radiate"

My wife, a linguist, proposes "disrregardless," which, being a triple negative, means regardless, but is so much classier.

Wes: Assume you meant "disirregardless"? Or "disregardless"? Either way, yeah: hella classy, as we say here in Oakland.

Goofy: "Unravel" is a good example of an unecessary prefix that fills a felt need. It's easy to forget whether "ravel" means "to knit" or "to take apart." (There's an online community for knitters called Ravelry, btw.)

But I was thinking more about words whose prefixed forms already have specific meanings. Are the meanings of "infamous" and "penultimate" on their way to obsolescence? "Pen-" (from Latin paene = "about") is definitely an odd prefix in English; not too many examples of it. (Penumbra?)

The word, "malfunction" ; "fail to operate normally", as in the case of the famous (infamous?) costume at the Superbowl, might be a kind of abuse in that it really doesn't leave us a clue as to what happened or why. "The computer malfunctioned." Did the malfunctioning computer destroy the world or lose a font?

I think the "un" of "unravel" is redundant, but it's not unnecessary.

"But I was thinking more about words whose prefixed forms already have specific meanings."

I'm not sure what you mean.

flammable and inflammable are my personal favorites.

while it's better described as a compound word, the "over" in "overabundance" also drives me batty.

Goofy: Penultimate's specific meaning is "next to last." In using it to mean "really, really ultimate," are we losing a word for "next to last"?

Ditto for "infamous." Is it being redefined to mean "really, really famous"?

Are all prefixes becoming perceived as synonyms for "super"? (Hyperbole, but you get my drift, I hope.)

Oh, I get it. Well, it would fit with the notion that we use prefixes for emphasis.

I might have misunderstood, but I think the Health & Safety brigade decided that 'inflammable' (from 'inflame') was an infamous word because too many illiterates thought it indistinguishable from 'non-flammable'; with inflammable consequences. So, some thirty years back, H&S coined 'flammable'.

Although I'm not fond of H&S Officers, in this case I'll not argue they were incorrect.

'Abundance' and 'overabundance' are two distinct words ('many' and 'too many') and, though often used in a rather flowery manner, I can't see a problem.

As I've always understood, 'irradiate' and 'radiate' have two distinct and very useful meanings. 'Radiation' is what an object gives out. 'Irradiation' is what is received by an object.

Last: If the 'un' in 'unravel' is considered redundant, what am I going to say the next time my garden hose gets ravelled up? [And yes, I use that exact phrase.]

ah, I said that the 'un' in 'unravel' was redundant, but not unnecessary. There's a difference. In "those three cats", plurality is marked 3 times. Redundant, but necessary.

While perhaps not entirely on point, I've noticed (especially on TV court shows) that people emphasizze their actions by such phrases as "I then proceeded to leave the house," instead of "I left the house." It may be that the legal setting makes verbosity essential in their minds, although I've heard the same turn of phrase elsewhere.

I am learning to knit. I have taken the same scarf apart at least five times. I think I can safely say it has been unraveled. Or would unravel to mean simply to knit up again?

@Dianna: "Ravel" and "unravel" are a unique word pair in that they are synonyms AND antonyms. Also, "ravel" can mean its own opposite (like "cleave"). Read more: http://www.randomhouse.com/wotd/index.pperl?date=20010302

English is so much fun. I imagine knitting is, too.

Flammable /inflammable can be dangerously confusing.

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