My entire worldview was very recently shattered. There’s a certain process by which frozen things warm up a little bit and melt when exposed to room-temperature air. My whole life, I have called this process “unthawing.” To me, this word makes perfect sense— that’s just what it’s called. Not everyone agrees with me, however. Every single person I asked about this process calls it “thawing” (without the prefix). Why do we have opposite words for the same thing?
There are a lot of words in the English language that are like this. Flammable and inflammable, regardless and irregardless, and loosen and unloosen, just to name a few. Each of these pairs looks like antonyms of each other, but if you look them up in a dictionary, you’ll see that they have exactly the same meaning. This phenomenon even extends to whole phrases. Have you ever said that you “could care less,” when you really meant you didn’t care at all? What’s going on here? Why do some people say the exact opposite of what they mean?
It’s hard to say. We can’t really tell why someone says something a certain way without asking them. Maybe some people use these negating prefixes as a way to emphasize. Maybe someone just made an honest mistake a long time ago and it caught on. Who’s to say?
All we really can say is that these words do in fact exist. They’re seemingly illogical to some, but they exist. They are all in the dictionary, too. So what’s the deal with these words? Are they even correct English?
“Correct” is perhaps not the best word to describe any variety of English. Most linguists would tell you there’s no such thing as a correct form of any language. Sure, there are standards, which are prescribed varieties of language for formal institutions like education and government, but there is no definitive or holy-and-proper form of a language.
Some people adamantly believe that dictionaries are what hold the God-given authority on what is and isn’t proper English. This isn’t true. The majority of modern dictionaries do not prescribe any particular usage of English as “correct” or “incorrect.” Dictionaries describe the words people use in speech, how they say them, and what meanings people give to them. A word’s place in the dictionary just means a lot of people who speak English happen to use that word. A dictionary may describe a word as uncommon or nonstandard, but it will not argue one way or another on whether that word should be used or avoided. Style guides, however, will argue for or against a particular usage, but this doesn’t make that usage any more or less correct. It just means that such a usage is subjectively preferred by that style guide.
Language is just our best way of communicating thoughts and emotions to each other. There’s no correct way to think or feel, so it makes sense that there’s no correct way to speak. All that matters at the end of the day is that we have a way to understand each other. So if you know what I mean when I tell you to take out the chicken and let it unthaw, why fix what isn’t broken?
~ Pat Mallory `26