Grammar Girl Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

Inflation, quiet quitting, and "un-" words, like "undressed," that can have two meanings. Gotcha Day.

Episode Summary

910. The final Grammar Girl word-of-the-year vote came down to "inflation" and "quiet quitting." We look at the interesting arguments voters made for both. Plus, we look at why some words that start with "un-" mean "not" and others mean "reversed"— and about the especially interesting words that can mean either (and why).

Episode Notes

910. The final Grammar Girl word-of-the-year vote came down to "inflation" and "quiet quitting." We look at the interesting arguments voters made for both. Plus, we look at why some words that start with "un-" mean "not" and others mean "reversed"— and about the especially interesting words that can mean either (and why).

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"Un-" Words Segment

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Episode Transcription

Grammar Girl here. I'm Mignon Fogarty, and you can think of me as your friendly guide to the English language. We talk about writing, history, rules, and other cool stuff. Today, we’ll talk about more words of the year and interesting “un-” words.

If you’re a regular listener, you already heard Kory Stamper and me chat few weeks ago about the early words of the year such as “goblin mode” and “woman,” but I also ran my own contest on most of my social media channels, and we now have a Grammar Girl word-of-the-year: “inflation.” 

It’s not the word I would have chosen (my favorites were “slava Ukraini,” which means “glory to Ukraine,” “democracy,” “polarized,” and either “long COVID” or “omicron” to represent the pandemic), but “inflation” is the word my followers chose, so that’s the word. (I’ve always known I’m not like most people.) 

Anyway, the specific question that got us to “inflation” was “What word best describes the zeitgeist of 2022?” And we voted in brackets, like the basketball playoffs. That was my husband’s idea. And the brackets were fun, but I do wonder if it would have turned out differently if we’d voted in a different way. My editor Adam wants to do ranked-choice voting next year.

So, in the final bracket, “inflation” beat out “quiet quitting” by 6.5 percent. And as an aside, “quiet quitting” was just chosen as the American Dialect Society’s most-likely-to-succeed word of 2022. It was a close vote though and it barely beat out “rizz,” which is short for “charisma.”

Another interesting thing is that LinkedIn largely drove the results since people voted there in the biggest numbers. For example, “quiet quitting” actually won the final vote on Mastodon and among my newsletter subscribers, but more than 2,500 people voted on LinkedIn, which favored “inflation,” and that swamped out the results from other platforms. 

That actually happened throughout the voting, as Kory and I talked about earlier, and it’s probably why we ended up with one final word about the workplace and the other final word about the economy. 

People in the comments made some interesting, consistent arguments for and against the final two words in the contest.

First, at least a few people refused to vote for “quiet quitting” because as a two-word phrase, they didn’t think it qualified as a single word, even though I explained that for the purposes of word-of-the-year votes, it’s common to have multi-word phrases as long as they have a specific meaning. Dictionaries and linguistics societies do it all the time. But still, it clearly bugged some people. 

A consistent argument for  “quiet quitting” was that it’s a new phrase and concept, compared to “inflation,” which is old and cyclical. But still, we were supposed to be choosing based on the zeitgeist, the feeling of the year, and not whether the word was new or not.

And the big argument against “quiet quitting” was that it’s not actually a real thing. 

Florida copywriter Kate McClare summed it up nicely in this comment on LinkedIn: “As I understand it, "quiet quitting" is when you do the minimum required amount of work and nothing more. Isn't that — uh, doing the job you were hired to do? If you are expected to go "above and beyond" the minimum, then above-and-beyond is the minimum. Employers who use this term are trying to shame us all back into the days when workers killed themselves for the job and found it wasn't necessarily any protection when the layoffs came for them.”

Another argument against “quiet quitting” was that it’s more U.S.-specific than “inflation,” meaning “inflation” was a more global and widely felt experience in 2022. 

The American tendency for over-work, and the American specificity of “quiet quitting,” was highlighted, for example, by a British follower who goes by “Holdfast” on Mastodon, who added, “If I wasn't taking my holidays … I would have at least 2 managers reminding me about it.”

And having worked peripherally in the pharmaceutical industry with European companies early in my science-writing career, I can say that feels true. It was shocking to me, as an American, how many people were out during the summer and how many weeks of vacation they got. And I know, that’s really sad. Anyway, you’re probably less likely to feel like “quiet quitting” when you have 2 months of vacation, and you’re encouraged to actually take it.

Still, although Europe seems to have the work-life balance thing worked out better than we do, I will argue that it’s not just Americans who are revolting against heavy work demands. In 2021, the phrase “lie flat” gained popularity in China. 

According to, “lie flat” is how young people in China describe opting out of the demanding professional life and social expectations to “work only as much as they need to support their minimalist lifestyle.” That seems to me like a version of “quiet quitting” or at least to be related to the concept of “quiet quitting.” (I believe I have more followers from Europe on social media than followers from Asia though. But I know you’re out there too. Hello, Asian followers!)

And the final interesting thing I noticed throughout the voting was that on platforms where people could see how other people voted, it seemed to influence the outcomes. For example, in the early voting on TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube, I asked people to leave their vote in the comments on my videos; so people could see everything, and in almost every case, the margins were dramatically bigger than the margins on LinkedIn and in my newsletter, where people couldn’t see how anyone else voted before they cast their own vote. 

Long-time listeners may remember that this is something Ellen Jovin, author of “Rebel with a Clause” described when she was a guest on the show too. She does a lot of online polls, and switched from using Facebook to using Twitter because she could actually see that people being able to see the results so far before they voted changed the outcomes when she posted the same polls to both platforms. Facebook would start out one way, but then the early winner on Facebook would rack up a bunch of votes, whereas the margins on Twitter—where people couldn’t see the votes—would stay closer. It seems we are a malleable species.

So thank you to everyone who voted! We’ll definitely do it again next year. Maybe we’ll do ranked-choice voting, and we’ll definitely be more organized since doing  the whole thing this year was just me in early December saying “Let’s do a word of the year!” So…whether you like it or not, the people have spoken, and the Grammar Girl word of 2022 was “inflation.”


This next segment was by Edwin Battistella.

Recently I had occasion to use the word “unsaid,” as inwhat goes unsaid. Looking at that phrase later, I began to ponder the related verb “unsay, which means something different.  What is unsaid is not said, but to unsay something means to retract it. The same not-quite-parallelism holds for “unseen” and “unsee” and “unheard” and “unhear.” Sometimes “un-" means “not” and sometimes it means to “reverse.

The pattern, as linguists will tell you, has to do with using a word as a verb versus using it as an adjective.  To “un–” a verb is to reverse the action of something: “to undress,” “untie,” “unzip,” “unfold”, “unpack,” “untuck,” “untwist,” “unroll,” “unveil,” “unwrap,” “undo,” and many more. Adding “un–” to a verb was a favorite trick of Shakespeare’s yielding such words as “to uncurse,” and “to unshout.”

To “un-” an adjective is to negate the quality described by the adjective: “unabridged,” “unacceptable,” “unanswered,” “unbalanced,” “uncommon,” “unlucky,” “untidy,” “untrue,” “unwritten”, and so on. Some of these adjectives are just “un-” plus a straight-up adjective—“acceptable,” “common,” “lucky,” “tidy,” true. Others are made from the past participle of the related verb: “abridged,” “answered,” “balanced,” and “written.” In each case, the meaning is “not” rather than “reverse.” An unabridged dictionary is not one in which words have been put back in, but one in which they are not left out. An unanswered question is not one receiving a bogus answer, but one getting no answer.

The story of “un- gets tricky though because sometimes past participles serve as verbs, which allows ambiguity: “The box was unpacked.” “The baby was undressed.” “The jacket was unzipped.” “The gift was unwrapped.”  

Each of these has an adjectival sense, in which the box was not packed, the baby was not dressed, the jacket was not zipped, the gift not wrapped. But each also has a reversed sense in which some unnamed person is unpacking the box, undressing the baby, unzipping the jacket, or unwrapping the gift. Of course, sometimes only one meaning is possible, as in (the classic example) “Antarctica is uninhabited,” which cannot mean that someone is uninhabiting Antarctica.

The Oxford English Dictionary 2018 update gave nearly 300 un- plus adjective combinations, including “unadult,” “unblasé,” “unsorry,” and “un-with-it.” Nouns with “un- are usually derived from adjectives, so they carry the sense of “not” rather than reversal: “uneasiness,” “untruth,” and so on.

Curiously, in a handful of words “un–” seems unnecessary but shows up anyway. The most widely used is “unloose/unloosen,” which the OED attests as early as the fourteenth century. Perhaps analogy with other “un”-verbs (“untie,” “unfasten,” “unleash”) is a factor in the unnoticed redundancy. “Unthaw,” meaning to thaw out, is attested as early as 1700, and today may even be heard in your own kitchen.

Unraveling “unravel” is trickier. “Ravel” it turns out is a contranym: a word that can mean either entangle or disentangle. So the “un-” of “unravel” does some work here, disentangling the senses of the root.

And finally, some instances of “un-” are mere historical vestiges. “Uncouth” and “unkempt” began as the prefixed words “uncūth” meaning “unfamiliar” and “unkemd” meaning “uncombed.” As the meanings shifted, the roots “cūth” and “kemd” became obscured and today we longer view “uncouth” and "unkempt” as prefixed forms at all.  

So the next time you use an “un-” word, pause for a second and mentally take the word apart. You may find the experience uncanny.

That segment was written by Edwin L. Battistella, who teaches linguistics and writing at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he has served as a dean and as interim provost. His books include Bad Language: Are Some Words Better than Others? and Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology. It originally appeared on the OUP blog and appears here with permission.

Finally, it’s familect time. First, Paul called in after last week’s story about “prefeeding” because he had used that word too.

Hello, Grammar  Girl, this is Paul Carter from the Netherlands. When I heard your broadcast with the familect  story about the pre-feeding, I had to laugh. It reminded me of the draft military service where we also had a pre-feeding, which was the time that we could get some food before the kitchen actually opened. That reminded me. Thank you for a great show. Bye-bye.

Thanks, Paul. And you don’t hear it in his voice really, but he told me he laughed and laughed after hearing last week’s story.

And next, we have a new story from Andrea:

"Hi! This is Andrea Kenner. I live in Maryland, and I'm sending you one of the family and friends words that we use. Here it goes. Many of my Facebook friends come from an older website called Catster. The Catster community was a place where cat people and their dog-loving friends could get together for ‘pawties’ and other fun times. We came up with the term for the day when a cat or dog was adopted. We still use it today with someone’s pet and celebrating the day when they found their forever home. The term is ‘Gotcha Day.’ So whenever someone posts on Facebook that their cat or dog is celebrating that anniversary, we tell them ‘Happy Gotcha Day.’ Thanks a lot."

Thanks, Andrea. I loved that.

If you want to share the story of your familect, a family dialect or a word your family and only your family uses, call the voicemail line at 83-321-4-GIRL, and I might play it on the show. Be sure to tell me the story behind your word and call from a quiet place.

Grammar Girl is a Quick and Dirty Tips podcast. Thanks to my editor, Adam Cecil, and my audio engineer Nathan Semes, who was in Brazil over Christmas and New Years but still produced every show. Our ad operations specialist is Morgan Christianson, our marketing and publicity assistant is Davina Tomlin, our digital operations specialist is Holly Hutchings, and our intern is Kamryn Lacy.

And I’m Mignon Fogarty, better known as Grammar Girl. That's all. Thanks for listening.