Waiting to cross a street in my Oakland neighborhood, I noticed this sticker on a telephone pole:
“Need to be unpregnant?”
The blurry text on the left reads “Juniper Midwifery abortion pills by mail.” There are several services around the country that call themselves Juniper Midwifery (possibly because juniper needles are an abortifacient); this Juniper is based in New York and provides abortion pills in six states, including California, where surgical and pharmaceutical abortions are (still) legal.*
“Juniper” is a good name, but what really piqued my interest was unpregnant. I hadn’t seen the word previously—or thought I hadn’t—but in fact I just hadn’t been paying close enough attention.
My first thought was that unpregnant was a new euphemism invented to skirt online algorithms. There’s a name for this sort of coinage: algospeak, which I wrote about in my April 2022 linkfest, citing Taylor Lorenz’s investigation in the Washington Post. One bit of algospeak, unalive—a substitution for suicide or kill—was the American Dialect Society’s euphemism of the year for 2021. Could unpregnant be a sibling of unalive?
But when I did an online search for unpregnant, I was surprised to see a cascade of links not to algospeak glossaries but to Unpregnant, an HBO film released in September 2020—when I’d completely missed it—and still available to stream on the network’s current incarnation, MAX. It stars one of my favorite young actresses, Haley Lu Richardson, as an accidentally pregnant Missouri teen who persuades her former best friend to drive her to an abortion clinic in New Mexico, the closest place where the procedure is legal.
I immediately streamed the film, which is based on a 2019 novel of the same name by Ted Caplan and Jenni Hendriks. It’s funny and bracing and moving without being a bit preachy. The word unpregnant is never seen or spoken; I couldn’t help wondering whether it was chosen as a nose-thumbing retort to Unplanned, an anti-abortion movie released in 2019. (I wrote about Unplanned here.)
How new is unpregnant? Another surprise: it isn’t new at all. In fact, the OED’s earliest citation for the word is from 1604: Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2. That usage is figurative rather than literal.
Yet I, a dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause …
… which translates to “Yet I, a dull-spirited rascal, mope like a slacker not brought to life by a mission.”
(How many times have I read or seen Hamlet and not noticed unpregnant? I’ll notice it now, you betcha.)
A 1772 book about venereal disease used the word in its physiological sense: “The catamenia is the monthly discharge from the pudenda in women whilst unpregnant.” Unpregnant also appeared in a 1961 scientific article about pregnant ewes “rendered unpregnant by a tiny infectious organism.” And it was used by the American writer Joseph Skibell in his 2003 novel The English Disease: “Unpregnant women all look like scarecrows to me now, lifeless stick figures.”
Unpregnant: so very old, yet so very timely. Isn’t English wonderful?
* More about the burgeoning field of telehealth abortion here (New York Times gift link).