The Age of Undoing
By BEN ZIMMER
Published: September 15, 2009 (in New York Times)
“What’s done cannot be undone,” moaned Lady Macbeth in her famous sleepwalking scene. If she woke up in the 21st century, she would be pleased to discover that whatever can be done can be undone, too.
Or perhaps it just seems that way in the new social spaces we are carving for ourselves online. On popular Web sites devoted to social networking, innovative verbs have been springing up to describe equally innovative forms of interaction: you can friend someone on Facebook; follow a fellow user on Twitter; or favorite a video on YouTube. Change your mind? You can just as easily unfriend, unfollow or unfavorite with a click of the mouse.
The recent un- trend has also seeped into the world of advertising. KFC is marketing its new Kentucky Grilled Chicken with the tagline “UNthink: Taste the UNfried Side of KFC.” The cellphone company MetroPCS challenges you to “Unlimit Yourself,” while its competitor Boost Mobile wants you to get “UNoverage’D” and “UNcontract’D” (ridding yourself of burdensome overage fees and contracts). Even victims of the financial downturn can seek solace in un-: ABC broadcast a special report in May telling viewers how to get “Un-Broke.”
Where did all of this un- activity come from? Ever since Old English, the un- prefix has come in two basic flavors. It can be used like the word “not” to negate adjectives (unkind, uncertain, unfair) and the occasional noun (unreason, unrest, unemployment). Or it can attach to a verb to indicate the reversal of an action (unbend, unfasten, unmask). Both kinds of un- are ripe for creating new words. The negative variety of the prefix has been particularly fertile for spinning off nouns, at least since 7-Up first branded itself as the “Un-Cola” in the late 1960s. In the business world we now find unconferences and unmarketing, predicated on the notion that we need to rethink traditional models of conferences and marketing. And beware of unnovation, the opposite of innovation.
But it’s the reversible un- that has really been getting a workout lately, even more so than its semantic sibling de- (as in declutter or defragment). Our expectations that any action can be taken back have been primed by a few decades of personal computing, which injected the founding metaphor of “undoing” into the common consciousness. An early glimmer of our Age of Undoing appeared in a prescient 1976 research report by Lance A. Miller and John C. Thomas of I.B.M., drably titled “Behavioral Issues in the Use of Interactive Systems.” “It would be quite useful,” Miller and Thomas observe, “to permit users to ‘take back’ at least the immediately preceding command (by issuing some special ‘undo’ command).” Useful indeed!
The undo command would become a crucial feature of text editors and word processors in the PC era, assigned the now-familiar keyboard shortcut of Control-Z by programmers at the research center Xerox PARC. In the software of the ’80s, some undo commands became “multilevel,” allowing users to take back a whole series of actions (called the undo stack), not just the most recent one. Ad-hoc un- verbs began to emerge for these reversible innovations. In 1984, the software company NewStar introduced the unerase command for its word-processing program NewWord, while I.B.M.’s VisiWord countered with undelete. From there it was a quick step to unbolding, unitalicizing and even un-underlining your errantly formatted text.
The Yale University linguist Laurence R. Horn sees an earlier technological metaphor at work in the flurry of un- verbs. As Horn writes in “Uncovering the Un-Word,” a paper in the journal Sophia Linguistica: “The prevailing sense is that for something to unhappen, the tape of reality must be set to Rewind. That this is a practical impossibility . . . does not make the metaphor any the less attractive.”
Rewinding the tape of reality is an appealing metaphor in science fiction, unsurprisingly. Nancy Etchemendy’s young-adult novel, “The Power of Un,” features a middle-school student who operates a gizmo called “The Unner” to go back in time and undo past events.
Songwriters have also made poetic use of the un- prefix to imagine the reversal of irreversible things, notably falling in and out of love. It’s a useful lyrical trick in such genres as folk rock (Lucinda Williams’s “Unsuffer Me”), R & B (Toni Braxton’s “Un-Break My Heart”) and country (Lynn Anderson’s “How Can I Unlove You?”). But as Horn points out, imaginary unloving has been going on for centuries in English literature, from Chaucer to BrontĎ: Jane Eyre confides, “I had learned to love Mr. Rochester; I could not unlove him now.”
What sets latter-day un- verbs apart from these historical examples is that the “reality rewind” is no longer a flight of counterfactual fancy: it’s built right into the interfaces that we use to make sense of our shared virtual worlds.
Facebook, for instance, allows you to register approval for a posted message in a very concrete way, by clicking a thumbs-up like button. Toggling off the button results in unliking your previously liked item. Note that this is different from disliking something, since unliking simply returns you to a neutral state. This kind of instant reversibility is now an inescapable facet of our digitized life — like it or un-.
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of visualthesaurus.com, an online destination for word lovers. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. William Safire is on hiatus for a few weeks.