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What is the not UN- formation?

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2009-10-13 12:49:36
2009-10-13 12:49:36

The "not un-" formation is where you qualify an adjective with the double negative "not un-" to avoid making a direct statement about something.

For example, if I liked my dessert today, I might say "my dessert was nice". But then someone might quote me!

"I hated today's dessert."
"Kevin said the dessert was nice."
"Really? Then Kevin must be an idiot for thinking the dessert was nice."

Terrible! So I could be non-committal and say "my dessert was not unpleasant". I didn't say it was nice, but I made a round-about statement which might imply it was nice, without committing me to having said it was actually nice.

If you're a politician and you actually voice an opinion, people will be able to quote you on it, and some portion of your electorate will disagree with you, possibly not voting for you again simply because they disagree with your opinion.

Therefore, since the 1900s, politicians have tried to avoid ever directly stating their opinions, even if you ask them for a straight answer. They come up with all sorts of linguistic contortions to be able to answer questions without giving any definite opinion that can be pinned down to them.

George Orwell took these politicians to task in his essay Politics and the English Language, published in 1946. He covered a huge range of these tricks, including the "not un-" formation. He said:

One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.

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