An article of ten … Not!

Monty_python_footIt’s interesting, is it not, to consider how many ways the English language has developed for saying that something is not something else.  Now it seems  that to get anywhere these days an article has to have a list of ten items in it. Let’s see if I get much of a readership by jumping on that bandwagon…

1. !=, ≠
In mathematical notation, we have for instance  !=  or if someone wants to go to the trouble of finding the classical symbol ≠ (Unicode numer 2260) then they have a very elegant way of noting “is not equal to” in a mathematical or logical sense.

2. In-, im-, un-

Then we have the classic prefixes, which encapsulate the diglossia in English: un- prefixes grace Germanic roots in the main and in- or im- go with the Latin or French roots (the latter if the root begins with b, p, or m but for some reason not the other labials f and v) However, the cut-off is not strict, because in- can refer to something going into something also. So “information” does not mean a lack of formation – to get back to that idea you can non- or borrow un- from the Germanic stock for it, so for example you could comment that you found this whole article “uninformative”.

3. Dys-, dis-

Or there is disinformation. This dis- is an additional Latin based prefix showing that something has gone off in all directions, or in a wrong direction, with a more common version of that being dys- from Greek, which isn’t fussy about attaching to Latin roots either, so that you get dysfunctional people …

4. Mal-, mis-

and these people might be malformed also and be spreading misinformation, with mal- and mis- being two further prefixes that show that things are not really what the root says, they contradict the root. In Esperanto mal- is the  universal negating prefix, in English or most natural West European languages it is not really good for neutral negation since the root in Latin “malus” (also, interestingly, “apple”) means “evil”.

5. Contra-, counter-

That brings us on to contra- or counter- which suggests not so much something not being something else, but rather coming from the opposite direction to something else. A counter-attack is still an attack. It’s just not the same one as the original attack. It’s coming from the opposite direction.

6.  Non-

On top of all that there is also the classic non- as in “Non, non, non” (Margaret Thatcher). This is often attached to nouns from verbs, so you have non-smokers and non-drinkers, but you don’t tend to get unsmokers and undrinkers – that would almost suggest a reversal of the smoking or drinking process which may well be a non-pretty sight. On the other hand you get non-believers and unbelievers and people who disbelieve. Each of these terms gives its own shade of meaning but all around the idea of not being the thing the root is saying, or being the reverse of it.

7. A-, ana-

Greek roots also sometimes come into English with the “a-” or “ana-” prefixes that show that something is not something else or has not got it. You ‘ll find a lot of these in medical terms, for example, as well as in the scientific names of animals and plants, like Anableps.

Now, at this point you  might be thinking that with all these mechanisms for saying that something is not something, English would not really need that many more, but modern language, in its weaselly way, has added a number of hidden ways of saying “not”.

8. Economical with, -challenged, zero-
One of these is to use the term “economic with”. Instead of saying that someone is “untruthful” or  “a liar”, you can say that they are “economical with the truth”. You can get around saying someone  does not dress well by calling that person  “sartorially challenged” These circumlocutions often require a slight change in the root word and the humour is in getting people to think, although most examples are already by now in the realm of the cliche, and they tend to be used creatively challenged people. By which I mean zero-originality people, employing another “not”-related (as opposed to “unrelated” which is completely unrelated) neologism.

9. Quite, very, relatively, fairly, contextually (in combination with moral absolutes)

If someone  claims to be “very honest”, “relatively faithful” or, to quote a certain Monty Python (see illustration) song, “fairly incorruptible”, it is just another way of saying “dishonest”, “unfaithful” and “corruptible”. Either a person is honest or they are not. Recently someone who tried in vain  to rope me into a scheme countered my telling him that he was dishonest with the words “but I was honest with you”. Say no more.

10. Politically, etc

This is about the most weaselly of the lot of course, as people try to use this in denial of its meaning as a form of negation. Just as in the above case with “honest”, something is either correct or it isn’t.  Therefore, saying something is “politically correct” means it isn’t really correct. In reality, it is incorrect. Saying that something is “diplomatically acceptable” means that it isn’t really acceptable. In reality, it is unacceptable. A person’s age also tends to be a question of fact, so if you want to tell me “I’m sixteen in May” it means in all probability “I’m not 16”. So get out of my cinema.

About David J. James

52 year old accountant who loves languages, literature, history, religion, politics, internet, vlogging and blogging and lively written discussion. Conservative Christian, married to an angel, we have three kids, and live in Warsaw, Poland. I can help you with company set-up, bookkeeping, payroll, tax, audit and due diligence all over Poland and the region.

Posted on 14/02/2015, in Languages and Linguistics and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. I wonder – do you have any Russian or Polish friends left?


  2. David I wanted to ask, since you speak both Russian and Polish I assume you know this, what’s the cultural difference between Poles and Russians?
    I know this isn’t related to the post but I don’t know where else to ask.


    • Culturally they arevery different. Culture was defined by Hofstede as th collective mental programming ofa group of people. As such, the smaller and more specific the group, the stronger the culture will be. So family culture trumps city culture, firm culture trumps national culture, national cuture trumps Continental culture, if such a thing even exists, and the individual who has freed himself from his programming and reprogrammed himself trumps every other culture there can be.

      This is another way of saying that when it comes to culture, stereotypes are just that and not something by which to judge your own business or personal contacts. That having been said there are quite a few differences between a stereotyped Polish approach to the sterotyped Russian approach, and in almost evey case they can be explained by national history.

      Poland is a place which has been generally on the receiving end of imperialism, and wiped off the map on two occasions by the interests of its neighbours. Russis is a culture that spent a long time under the Tatar yoke but was able to throw it off in time and then became an imperial power and the largest national territory in the world. They have the ability to survive under tremendous duress, are more suspicious of foreigners and loyal to their leaders.

      Poles don’t tend to like their leaders mch for long, are generally good at sticking up for each other, though and looking after other Poles. But they do this by having a high level of politeness and consideration for all the people they meet. They very easily make friends but they easily forget their friends also, and o be a life-long friend with a Pole is a bit of a rarity. You can come and go in their lives and they are pretty easy going about it, and they don’t expect to be making massive sacrifices for you and for you to do the same for them. Their nucleus is in the home, they tend to be very loving and indulgent parents to the point of spoiling the children and neglecting each other.

      Women are expected to lad the home and be strong, mature and sensible in Polish society – it is common for the woman to take home more than her husband and a level of feminism not far from that of France and certainly higher than commonly seen in Germany can be noted among them.

      That is not a 360 degree portrait of Poles, it is a highlight of the ways in which they differ from Russians. If I were to write about how both nations differ from say Germans or the British, I would have a different and possibly a longer list of points.

      Russians by contrast to Poles are much more dedicated to the people they know, and are ready to give and receive a lot in friendship. To unknown people they are quite prepared to be brusque and rude. They will expect a greater degree of attention if you ar their friend and the parents tend not to spoil the children too much, but still try not to neglect each other. The man is usually expected to lead the home and women behave as though looking childish and helpless will attract them to the Russian man, which it seems to do. They carry out orders in the workplace uncritically, take a long time to plan anything but then execute it quickly and to the end, while Poles like to launch into new projects often before finishing the last one.

      Poles like to apply discussion and logic to work situations and are not afraid to criticise ideas, but often theywil also adopt a strategy whereby they say they will do somethingbut then use delaying tactics in the hope that it becomes “nieaktualny”. They do not always keep their words and expect a glib excuse to be sufficient, but they are not surprised or unduly offended when the same happens to them. Punctuality, care in accounting for costs, and sticking to a plan even if it is startin to look not ideal are things that Russians seem better at than Poles and in this way resemble the Finns whose blood they have quite a lot of. Poles love to reinvent things and be creative. The problem is you get too many inventors and not enough implementors.

      Poles believe that Russians are a continual threat to them, and Russians believe that Poles have an ungrounded dislike of them, Russians will remind the Poles that Stalin killed more Russians than killed Poles, hat he was Georgian anyway and most of the Soviet Union’s leaders and influencers were proportionally Ukrainian, or from some other republic or country (including Poland) and that Poland also doesn’t have quite as faultless a history as t likes to see itself as having.

      I reiterate that this is just a stereotype, and ot something to judge individuals by, and that the portraits of both people I have tried to make just in apposition to each other. The Englishman or German will find more smilarities between these two nations than differences at first. The differences come out gradually as you experience living among them.



  3. Not uninformative… There is, of course, an “11” as any Spinal Tap fan will tell you… Simply by adopting a different tone, the negative can be conveyed. Would this work in other languages? The Americans might struggle and therefore might add the word “not”.


  4. Dorothea B.

    I’m not 16; I’m 29.


  5. Wesley Pimentel

    Nice, we can apply almost all of this in Portuguese also.
    2. I cannot think about the “un” from German, but “in” we have: insincero, inconformado.
    3. the same, desinformado, Discordar, desgraça.
    4. mal-informado, mal-estar.
    5. same: contra-ataque, contra-mão (when the car is driving against the right direction)
    6. não-fumantes
    7. acéfalo (doesn’t have a brain), you can call someone this way.
    8. that’s Euphemism, ele é desprovido de tamanho (he is deprived of stature), econômico com a verdade (the same phrase of yours)
    9. I agree with you 😀 nobody can be more or less honest.


  6. The reason in- is not im- before f and v is likely that, with the exception of overly careful articulation, the nasal is realized not as [n] or [m], but as [ɱ]. This symbol stands for a voiced dentolabial nasal in the International Phonetic Alphabet, and is more similar both in shape and sound to [m] than to [n], and in fact is often interchangeable with it. Maybe some clever scribe realized that they were not the same sound, and so didn’t bother changing the in- to im-.

    Interestingly, in Norwegian is frequently misspelled because of the dentolabial pronunciation.


    • The interesting thing is that if you say ‘imformation’ and someone is not listening carefully they will not really notice that you did not say information. Same with “imvoluntary”. Similarly you can get away with “umbelievable” or “ummoved”. Strange in a way that un doesn’t have any “m”form.


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