On The New Yorker's Book Bench blog, Eileen Reynolds writes about a site called "Unsuck It" that translates corporatese: "You type in a particularly odious word or phrase—'incentivize,' say—and 'Unsuck It' spits out the plain-English equivalent, along with a sentence for context." Reynolds uses the occasion to vent about how words can change their parts of speech when they work their way into corporate jargon:
Once words enter the workplace they’re allowed to bounce about between different parts-of-speech with freewheeling fluidity. Nouns become verbs. Verbs become nouns. Sam Lipsyte’s miserably funny “The Ask” is, among other things, a brilliant riff on this alarming phenomenon.
We've grappled with such issues of anthimeria from time to time on Language Log (on the nouning of ask, for instance, see Arnold Zwicky's 2008 post). But I'm more interested in the morphology of "Unsuck It" itself.
The intransitive verb suck 'to be inferior or objectionable' is a relative newcomer to English. As noted by Jonathon Green in Green's Dictionary of Slang, the earliest known example is from 1963, in a letter by James Blake (reprinted in his 1971 prison memoir The Joint): "I wrote on the wall, 'Franz Kafka sucks.'" It's now pretty omnipresent, of course, giving rise to all manner of progeny: sucky, suckitude, suckfest, suck city, etc.
Suck in the inferior/objectionable sense has also undergone its own part-of-speech switch, becoming a zero-derived noun referring to the general quality of suckiness. In online usage, the nouning of suck has likely been helped along by the common leetspeak expression, "teh suck" (where teh is an intentional misspelling of the). When used predicatively, as in "this is teh suck," it may not be clear whether "(teh) suck" is functioning as a noun or adjective. (The Wikipedia entry on teh glosses "teh suck" as "'the suckiest', or simply 'sucky'".) But in other contexts, its nouniness is more obvious, such as when something is described as "full of suck" (cf. similar mass-nounings of verbs like fail and win).
This is all important to know when unpacking "Unsuck It." My first thought was that it was a peculiar case of the reversative un- prefix attaching to an intransitive verb and transitivizing it in the process: thus, to unsuck something would be understood as 'to make it cease to suck'. But after discussing the matter with the master of negation Larry Horn (who has helped me think through tricky un- usage in the past), I came to realize that unsuck here is best understood as a denominal verb (that is, a verb derived from a noun): 'to remove the suck from'.
Fortunately, the creator of Unsuck It, Mule Design's Erika Hall, confirmed my hunch in an interview she gave Minyanville in August 2010, shortly after the site was launched (emphasis mine):
A friend who’s also a designer suggested we create a site that deals with this problem (of communicating without actually communicating). I thought of a management book I had seen called “Unstuck” and I thought, “Managers don’t need to get Unstuck, they need to get Unsucked.” We want to take the suck out of the way people are doing things.
While unsuck gets used transitively on the site, the verb has a longer history as an intransitive, formed as an opposing term to the familiar colloquial meaning of suck. Examples of intransitive unsuck can be found in the Usenet archive back to 1996:
Mr. Blakeslee is probably still scratching his head muttering, "What did he mean this stock sucks?" …
Here's hoping that with today's news the stock starts to *unsuck* and that I can eat my words.
—misc.invest.stocks, June 24, 1996
Can I decide that life sucks and not be depressed? Sure, I would think so. But I don't think that this leads to thoughts of suicide, in general. I think instead it causes one to think about ways to make it 'unsuck'.
—alt.support.depression.manic, Jan. 4, 1997
Sometimes life sucks and then just gets worse! …
Sometimes life unsucks when we stop to realize that we're just human beings doing what human beings do and not needing to prove ourselves or please anyone any longer.
—alt.abuse.recovery, July 27, 1997
—alt.elvis.king, Aug. 8, 1997
This more straightforward use of unsuck also appears in relation to the Unsuck It site, as when Erika Hall told the Wall Street Journal Digits blog last year, "We unsuck… We really try to help people get out of their mediocrity." (And in a comment on the Minyanville post, Hall wrote, "I want to make sure everyone knows it takes a lot of Mules to unsuck so much." That's intransitive too, unless "so much" was intended as the object of unsuck rather than as a degree adverbial.)
Transitive unsuck, while not new to Unsuck It, doesn't seem to have had much traction before the mid-aughts. Some examples (the first taking the unusual reflexive form):
How radio can unsuck itself
—Doc Searls, Dec. 2, 2003
So, to answer “a fan”. Yup, often that first draft is very sucky indeed. Fortunately I’ll have heaps of time to unsuck it.
—Justine Larbalestier, Sep. 8, 2005
Unsucking Online Education, Part One… Frankly, I think our current model sucks.
—Michelle Boule, Feb. 22, 2007
Idiot’s Guide to unsucking the suck
—Kim DeFranco, Feb. 1, 2009
Why comments suck (& ideas on un-sucking them)
—Dan Conover, May 8, 2009
Also, the photographer David duChemin wrote in his 2009 book Within the Frame, "Lazy vision can't be recovered in Photoshop. There is no Un-Suck filter." (The idea of a mythical "Un-Suck filter" in Photoshop apparently came to duChemin in a June 2008 post on his Pixelated Image blog.)
And for those who find reversative unsuck a little harsh, Chris Brogan offered a milder alternative on Open Forum not long after Unsuck It came on the scene last year. "Company blogs, for the most part, stink," Brogan wrote. "How do you unstink that blog?"