"A grief group will help you to unpeel the layers of these interlocking relationships." After spotting that sentence in an advice column, my neighbor asked me whether "unpeel" was a word, so I took her case on a "peel."
My verdict: "Unpeel" is indeed a word. But here's the oddity: Despite its "un-" prefix, "unpeel" means the exact same thing as "peel" — to strip off or shed an outer layer.
How can this be? Let's unpeel (and peel) this big fat onion of a mystery.
While an "un-" prefix almost always indicates a negation of the word that follows it, as in "undo," "untie" and "uncover," in some rare cases the "un-" actually reinforces or intensifies the meaning of the root word.
When we speak, for instance, of unshelling peanuts, unthawing steaks, unskinning a carcass, or unstripping a floor, we actually mean that we're shelling, thawing, skinning and stripping these objects, respectively.
Similarly, we might speak of a fabric that's unravelling (ravelling) or of unbaring (baring) the truth.
These bizarre synonyms, sometimes called "auto-antonyms" or "unantonyms," seem most likely to emerge when a speaker is trying to punch up the intensity of the root verb.
In these cases, the usually negative prefix "-un" serves, not as a negator, but as an intensifier. Unshelling, unstripping and unbaring somehow seem more dramatic and emphatic than merely shelling, stripping and baring.
In print, unantonyms show up in a surprising variety of contexts. Our old friend, "unpeel" for instance, has recently enjoyed these outings:
A headline: "Plant Pathologists Unpeel Rumors of Banana Extinction." A do-it-yourself manual: "Use a thin screwdriver to edge up the old screen, then just unpeel and remove it. An advertisement: "Prepare to unpeel the super-sized satsuma." Literary criticism: "The desire to unpeel the layers of social convention that cloud her life is evident."
The meaning of each of these sentences is perfectly clear. And, in the headline, "unpeel" is probably a better choice than "peel" because it stresses the word play on "banana."
Of course, "un-" isn't the only "negative" prefix than can intensify or validate a root's meaning rather than reverse it. After all, "invaluable" means "very valuable"; "innumerable" means "very numerous"; "inhabitable" means "habitable"; and "inflammable" means "flammable."
So don't be afraid to loosen and unloosen your shirt collar occasionally to let an unantonym fly.
Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to [email protected] or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.