un—2 prefix added to verbs: 1 denoting the reversal or cancellation of an action or state: untie | unsettle. 2 denoting deprivation, separation, or reduction to a lesser state: unmask | unhand. Old English un-, on-, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch ont- and German ent-
(from The New Oxford English Dictionary, copyright 2005)
A Catalogue of Loss and Gain: The Doing of Un
Here’s a theory: we spend our whole lives trying to un ourselves.
Sometimes, the unning is good for us. We undo patterns that no longer serve us. We unfetter ourselves from belief systems that limit us. We unearth what we really desire and we unwrite the narrative that we do not deserve all these dreams, these longings. We unmask so that others can see us for who we really are. We unclutter. We unbolt. We unarm.
Sometimes, the unning does us harm. We un all over ourselves. We rename ourselves: Unable, Unacceptable, Undeserving. We declare events and situations unbearable, and thus strip ourselves of our earned and ever-present power. We decide life should be unchanging and so we hold so tightly onto what is that we can’t see what is possible. We declare our life’s work Untitled because we are too terrified to name it imperfectly. We’d rather call it nothing than be imprecise, than be exposed for our lack of poeticism.
Right now, the moon is full and in Aries. This is a time abundant with potential, but potential that comes from the deepest of rifts. We must let go and abandon previous ways of being. We must un in order to make space for what will be birthed. We must cancel that which does not serve us to make space for that which will. We un and in doing so lose our footing, our sense of who we are and what we know, in order to make room for an uncertain future which will weave us back together in ways we could never imagine. We unharness our unyielding hold on what the future must be in order to allow it to come into what it will be, one breath and one moment at a time.
Un sounds like fun but it can be the opposite: loss, separation, reduction. Un sounds like won but it is about losing. Un sounds like done but is about undoing. Un cancels. Un annuls. Un reprieves and deprives. It both lessens and augments: what’s lost is gone and yet what’s lost becomes mythic, legendary in proportion. It both no longer is and exists in a size and measure it never did when it wasn’t un.
And yet, un brings offerings. Un brings, even in its negation, the imaginings of what is possible. It speaks to possibility on the other side. If there is unbelief, belief is possible. If we deem something unworthy, how might worthiness be seen? If something is unheard of, who is not able or willing to hear? Which limitations and negations are merely semantic ones made only by our need to constrain and define?
We are talking about irony and paradox and contradiction in my writing classes. How often these instances occur in literature and in life. How can it be possible that in unfastening and unbuckling, we could be held together more securely? That unmarking sometimes brings more attention to the canvas than the mark itself? That in unwinding a spool, we become more aware of the constraint of thread? That in unmaking something, we are aware so keenly of the steps and materials that allowed the thing to take shape? That in unbridling, we find, finally, both the freedom and the restraint we seek.
4 responses to “un–”
What an interesting parallel to my life you have stumbled upon, especially as we re-enter a time of communication with one another, and me literally subscribing to this project hours ago.
The company I work for has adopted a marketing theme of “un”. It maddens my sensibilities. We have defined ourselves as an enterprise by what we are not. While trying to avoid specifics, I can say that down to the address of the website we have altered our identity to be the opposite of what we sell. The “un” theme then permeated all media, from trip titles, to Captain’s descriptions (this Captain is “unparalleled”, that one is “undaunted” etc.), even down to email taglines.
I guess it bothers my language brain in the way that text-speak does. The degradation and erosion of spelling, syntax, and diction to make way for efficiency and sloth. Acronyms for phrases, the total loss of punctuation, and emoticons replacing the ability to correctly convey feeling with words are regressing our language into a binary code devoid of beauty.
Not to sound like a company man, but what we offer and what we delivered this last summer brought people to tears. People I have known for years, colleagues and professionals alike, all experienced something different from what they normally knew. They formed relationships and had an adventure that could only culminate in a loss of words and that familiar choking sensation when trying to find them.
To take that wonderful intangible thing, to set ourselves apart from the competition by merely negating the product with “un” feels cheap and remedial. Ubiquitous erudite appellations abounding, and we settle for the denominator. un.
Loved this reflection, Jordan. Particularly the way you articulated your resistance to marketing campaigns dumbing down speech and defining by negation. I, too, get really annoyed by text-speak and the ways in which we default to words that are more generic, less specific. We water down the ways in which we describe moments/conversations/books/experiences/people and by doing so muddle the meaning. It’s already hard enough to describe the indescribable but sometimes we oversimplify in an attempt to message and we end up losing the subtlety (or profundity) of life. Thanks again for writing this.
I was really moved by this piece .Thank you!
Thank you for reading and for commenting!