Wednesday, March 07, 2007

'to unscrew' vs 'to screw up'

Haven't seen any mention of this strip yet ... Scott Adams is good with language, and this use of 'to unscrew' for the undoing of a screw up seems striking. You can find a few uses like this via google, but it doesn't look widespread, and you get other (for me, more expected) variants like 'to unscrew up'. I assume the issue for speakers like Alice is that somehow negating a verb + particle construction like 'to screw up' doesn't work because the un- doesn't seem like it can modify the up, so you repair it by dropping the latter? Offhand, I can't think of parallel constructions, though ... Is this a structural innovation or following some patterns that I'm missing?


Monica said...

I wondered if there wasn't some taboo avoidance going on. "Screw up" might be Bad Language for some (I remember my mother objecting to it) so maybe Alice uses "unscrew" as a safe way of negating something she's not supposed to say? Just a thought. (Of course, my mother also got mad at my sister once for saying "that sucks" on the grounds that it was pornographic, so maybe she had some weird idiosyncratic ideas about what counted as Bad Language...)

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. That hadn't occurred to me at all.

Safire's last week column was in part about taboo avoidance and 'to suck'. I couldn't write anything about it at the time, and then ads-l had a little thread that was really depressing in the usual Safire way.