June 14, 2006

"Still un-X-ed" is not yet unspreading

Picking up last year's conversation about the interpretation of "still unpacked" as "not yet unpacked", a pseudonymous reader, dr pepper, sends these examples showing that a similar usage exists for unwrapped and uncorked:

(link) "Not much luck has befallen the search for the elusive mummy bands which Weigall stated were found around the KV 55 mummy (JEA 8 [1922], 193ff.) He described the bands as being wrapped around the outside of the mummy at right angles to the bandages, but none of the others present during the clearance of the tomb mentioned such bands in their written accounts. Apparently Weigall assumed that the objects he saw were retaining straps or mummy "braces," used to hold the shroud and wrappings covering the mummy in place. (A good example of such "mummy bands" appears on the still-unwrapped mummy of Isiemkheb-D.)"

(link) "In a Talbot's box, still unwrapped, was an expensive pantsuit."

(link) "Among the items are coins, glass bottles still uncorked with the organic material perfectly preserved, intact amphorae and soles of seafarers' shoes, probably tossed away when they were no longer good."

(link) "Zal sends this "news" story, along with the comment,"Bwahahahaha... mebbe it'll have a screw-top for ya," referring, of course, to the still uncorked bottle of wine my bro-in-law gave me last month."

I'll add some examples of "still unsealed" meaning "not yet unsealed":

(link) I've got one AutoCAD licence for sale. It is $7500 incl GST.... The boxes are still unsealed in the original packages.
(link) Barbie's Horse Adventures: Wild Horse Rescue has been a running joke for many (male) gamers ... Joke all you want, but don't give up any copies you have, especially if they are still unsealed. ... a follow-up post by sonarrat uncovered the hot collectors market for Barbie's Horse Adventures. It appears that on Amazon.com, at the time of this writing, the game is fetching $74.99 to $129.99 on the used market.

including one where "few remaining unsealed" means "few remaining sealed":

(link) On the other hand, all three judges spanked the judges of the Southern District of Florida for engaging in secret docketing. The panel ordered dockets and files in the case unsealed.
(Strafer expects the few remaining unsealed files in the Ochoa case to be automatically unsealed once the 11th Circuit clerk issues an official mandate. He said he expects some significant documents to be among those still unsealed, including one detailing the government's sentence reduction scheme.)

But both intuition and web search tell me that "still undressed" never means "not yet undressed".

Is this problem still unsolved or not yet unsolved? If I'm not yet unpuzzled about this, am I still puzzled or still unpuzzled? Tune in for the next exciting episode...

[Ben Zimmer points out that commenters on Languagehat turned up "still unwrapped" last year along with many other examples ("still unloaded", "still unrolled", "still unearthed"). I missed that, alas, having read the post before most of the comments showed up. It looks like "uncorked" and "unsealed" are new, though. And we need to pay more attention to the cases where it doesn't work ("undressed", "uncovered", "unplugged"), though they are interesting only by comparison to the similar words that allow the still = not yet equivalence.]

[Update -- Arne Meyer emailed:

Saw your link to my post (http://arne360.blogspot.com/2006/04/barbie-horse-adventures-collectible.html) where I used the phrase "still unsealed."

Inadvertantly, it made me realize that my sentence was horribly formed and I was probably distracted when I wrote it. My intention had actually been to say "still sealed."

Your post about the usage of those words was quite interesting and I never thought about those words that way. It was definitely an interesting item to read.

I was writing to just give you notice that I will be correcting that phrase in my blog post to accurately reflect what I meant. You might want to alter your link to my post or mention how it's been corrected.

One of the most interesting things about this usage is how widespread it is, even among excellent writers; how hard it is for readers to notice any problem with it; and yet, how often people conclude that it's a mistake when it's pointed out to them, even though there is no hectoring by "language mavens" on the question. ]

[Dr pepper (that's the pseudonymous reader, not the soft drink) emails:

I've found another: (un)veil.

(l ink) "But now you can let Gawker be your methadone, because after many hours of hard work and NSA-level computer sleuthing (read: an innocuous Google search), we've hacked into the still-unveiled new site."

Having thought it over some more, i'm now thinking that the verbs that get treated this way are ones that make their objects in some way unavailable, and have un forms that perfectly reverse whatever the basic forms did.

That might be right. Intuition tells me that "still uncovered" can't mean "not yet uncovered", but on the web I found this: "We visited the site of Pompei, which was covered with a 7 meter layer of ash after the Vesuvius erupted on August 24 79 BC. Most of the city is still uncovered but parts have been excavated since as early as the 18th century ..."   Still, there does seem to be a lexical aspect of this phenomenon. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at June 14, 2006 09:00 AM