Unsucking the suck

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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

Elvis Unsucks
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?"

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45 Comments »

  1. Chandra said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 2:05 pm

    I would have guessed that the name was a play on a phrase that a frustrated person might like to say to a corporate jargon-abuser (simply remove the "un").

  2. Grant Barrett said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

    Cf. unass:

    http://www.doubletongued.org/index.php/dictionary/unass/

  3. GeorgeW said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 3:43 pm

    When I was a teen (mid 20th century), 'suck' was considered obscene (referring to fellatio). Apparently, it has since lost any of this connotation. It seems now to just be slangy.

  4. Chandra said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 4:17 pm

    @GeorgeW – It has not lost that connotation at all; in fact the expression I was alluding to above refers exactly to that. And I'm pretty sure that's how the inferior/objectionable sense came about, too.

  5. Chandra said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 4:21 pm

    (I wish there were a way to edit previous comments… anyway, to add to the above:)

    From the Online Etymology Dictionary: "Slang sense of "be contemptible" first attested 1971 (the underlying notion is of fellatio)."

  6. Xmun said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

    I couldn't care less about unsucking the suck (and have always though "it sucks" to be a disgusting expression), but where did the h in anthimeria come from?

  7. Xmun said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 4:23 pm

    Erratum: for _though_ read _thought_.

  8. Ellen said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

    Chandra and GeorgeW, surely there's a middle ground? Okay, sometimes it still has that connotation. But still having that connotation at times does not mean that it "has not lost that connotation at all". Just that it hasn't completely lost it.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

    Intransitive "suck" can and does exist side-by-side with the transitive version. For example, in the field of intercollegiate badmouthing, "Harvard Sucks" is a perfectly grammatical freestanding sentence, but it can also be expanded to add a NP as direct object, as, e.g., "Harvard Sucks Dead Goats." (Not an original example sentence; it's attested on the internet.)

  10. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 4:43 pm

    Intransitive "suck" can and does exist side-by-side with the transitive version.

    …as, indeed, it has since the 1960s. I've collected examples of such side-by-side usage in the graffiti left by Vietnam-era Army recruits on the canvas bunk bottoms of troop transport ships. See some examples listed here (from The Vietnam Graffiti Project).

  11. Paul Drye said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 5:07 pm

    And it can be every part of language! (Rather like another similarly spelled word)

    To quote noted linguist Homer Simpson: "That team sure did suck last night.They just plain sucked! I've seen teams suck before, but they were the suckiest bunch of sucks that ever sucked."

  12. Amy Stoller said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 7:17 pm

    This is dreadful. Surely they mean unsuckify. What is the modern world coming to? Such usage sucks canal water (expression first heard by me in the mid-1970s).

    Somewhat more seriously: I can well remember my mother's objection to this usage of "sucks" when it became current (in my neighborhood, anyway) in the 1970s. But I'm pretty sure her mother would have had similar objections to "stinks" – which is, more or less, what "sucks" replaced.

  13. GeorgeW said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 7:20 pm

    Chandra: Do you think that when people use the word today in almost any context they are consciously using it as slang for fellatio? I think I recall that Obama used it in a public setting. Was he using a slang expression for fellatio? Did his audience think he was?

    I think there has been a similar amelioration and blurring of original reference with 'screwed.'

  14. Casey Mack said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 8:41 pm

    I got unsucked by reading this blog. Thanks for unsucking me!

  15. John said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 8:55 pm

    @GeorgeW

    Yes, and also like the original meaning of "jerk."

    And don't forget about "to blow," as in "This blog blows."

    That said, this use of "unsuck" sucks.

  16. Chandra said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

    @George W – I think the expression has lost its shock value through frequent use, but if you ask any given teenager what they're really alluding to when they say something sucks or blows, I don't think they'd have any difficulty making the connection. Particularly since there are still very vulgar insults in common circulation that make use of those words.

    And now that I think of it, I've definitely heard the phrase "that sucks" extended to "that sucks dick" or "that sucks ass". So no, in my opinion the fellatio connotation isn't that far off in many speakers' minds.

    *wonders if this comment will make it through the moderation filter…*

  17. bloix said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

    There's an old expression from running, to suck wind, meaning to be gasping for breath, falling behind, dropping hopelessly off the pace. And so, by metaphoric extension, to be failing catastrophically at anything.

    I suspect- meaning I have no idea, really – that to suck dick, meaning to be bad at something, is an obscene variant on to suck wind.

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 9:46 pm

    I have recently heard, from a teenager living in Nevada, that in her peer group "it sucks" means "it's good."

    Certainly, if someone said to me "this vacuum cleaner really sucks," I would think of it as a favorable judgment.

  19. bloix said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 9:50 pm

    A little research reveals the farmer's expression "x sucks hind tit" meaning that it's no good= the piglet that sucks the hind tit is the runt who gets the least milk because he's not strong enough to muscle his way further forward.

  20. Ellen K. said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 9:57 pm

    Chandra, "isn't that far off in many speakers' minds" is not at all the same as saying it hasn't at all lost the connotation. To the contrary, it implies there are other speakers for whom that's that the case.

  21. Ellen K. said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 10:08 pm

    P.S. I'm pretty sure many people (when they are kids) learn "suck" before they have any clue about sex acts that would be described with the word.

    And I can tell you that I for one, when I use the word "suck" don't do it with any thought of any sexual reference. No alluding to anything.

  22. Ben Zimmer said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

    In a 2001 article in the journal Dictionaries (PDF available here), Ron Butters argued that intransitive suck owes its origin to non-vulgar transitive uses like "suck wind/rope/eggs." He sees the fellatio reading as a later development. But as I noted above, the evidence we now have from Vietnam-era graffiti shows that the sexual construal was prominent even in the mid- to late '60s — the fact that young draftees were scribbling both "The Army sucks" and "The Army sucks dick" (and variations thereof) undercuts the idea that the vulgarity was a post-facto reinterpretation.

  23. Nick said,

    April 19, 2011 @ 11:59 pm

    Wasn't Vietnam itself referred to as the Suck? (In lines with "the shit")?

  24. Ed said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 1:00 am

    I read "Un-suck" and I immediately think that it's a play on "un-f*ck", like "once we get this mower un-f*cked we can finish the yard". The words are, um, lexically proximate and rhyme too.

  25. GeorgeW said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 5:10 am

    Ellen K: "I'm pretty sure many people (when they are kids) learn "suck" before they have any clue about sex acts that would be described with the word."

    Yes, I have a feeling that there is a generation or two who acquired the word without being aware of a possible fellatio referent.

    FWIW, I never had a 'vulgar' sense about 'sucker.' In fact, in my youth (50s & 60s), this seemed a little old fashioned.

  26. Dregs said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 6:30 am

    "Desuck", rather than "unsuck", sounds like the right term to me…

    Detach
    Debug
    Derail
    Desuck
    etc.

  27. Merri said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 7:35 am

    I Agree that de- more directly suggests the cessation of a state, as in Dregs' examples, but sometimes un- also marks a cessation (untie, unpack, unfrozen). So there isn't much in it.
    Un- would rather mean "non-state" when prefixed to an adjective (unnecessary, unefficient), and perhaps that's what makes the word, er, unobvious, but I can't see any error in its coining.

  28. Doreen said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 7:44 am

    We paid a consultant big money to "unsuck" our corporate newsletter.

    Now it just blows.

  29. chris said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 8:02 am

    Certainly, if someone said to me "this vacuum cleaner really sucks," I would think of it as a favorable judgment.

    Nothing sucks like Electrolux!

    ISTR hearing that they wrote that slogan as a deliberate joke, because the slang sense of "suck" connoting inferiority was already well established, but of course the purpose of a vacuum cleaner is to suck (literally).

    [bgz: According to this San Francisco Chronicle article, it was no joke -- an overseas PR firm failed to take into account the newly developed slang sense of suck when the slogan was brought to the US in the early '70s.]

  30. Chandra said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 9:42 am

    @Ellen K – I'm not sure why it is that you seem to feel the need to nitpick everything I say around here. But I was responding to George W's comment that the expression "has since lost any of this connotation." Which it clearly has not.

  31. Bloix said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 10:42 am

    "Wasn't Vietnam itself referred to as the Suck?"
    I don't know, but Anthony Swofford, in Jarhead, his memoir of the first Iraq war, records that he and his fellow Marines referred to the Marine Corps itself as "the Suck."

    [bgz: Slang expert Jonathan Lighter turned up an example from a 1997 novel set during the deployment of Marines in Beirut in the early '80s. He says he hasn't come across it in Vietnam-era writings.]

  32. Jim said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

    There is an expression "embrace the suck" that arose in Iraq maybe five years ago. It had a tinge of wit to it, and the sense I got was that what was considered witty was the slightly twisted grammar of the expression. I think terms like 'suckitude' and others carry some of the same humorous connotation.

    Desuck vs. unsuck – however derivationally superior 'de-' is to 'un, less ambiguous, 'unfuck' set the pattern, and SOP trumps reason every time.

    "Ellen K: "I'm pretty sure many people (when they are kids) learn "suck" before they have any clue about sex acts that would be described with the word."

    Well that's pretty much the nature of all language learning, isn't it? And a kid can be pretty put off by the image of sucking dick well before it registers as anything directly sexual, anyway.

    As to the negativity of the image, there was some push back on that for a while. Back about 10-15 years ago I started seeing bumpers stickers that said "Mean People Suck". Sure enough, soon there were bumper stickers that said "Nice People Swallow".

    "Suck" as instransitive? How so? "Kill" isn't intransitve in "Speed Kills".

  33. Ellen K. said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    Chandra, do note that my initial comment was to both you and GeorgeW.

  34. Chandra said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 4:38 pm

    @Jim: "Well that's pretty much the nature of all language learning, isn't it?"

    Indeed. A word's having a connotation is not dependent on all speakers being aware of it. If a word is used that a large percentage of potential listeners/readers associate with a particular idea, then the connotation is there whether the speaker intended it or not.

  35. Scott said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 5:29 pm

    "If a word is used that a large percentage of potential listeners/readers associate with a particular idea, then the connotation is there whether the speaker intended it or not."

    But what percentage of speakers have the sexual meaning of the word, my guess is that the vast majority of people under the age of around 40 or so have never thought of the word as having a sexual meaning.
    I suppose it's natural when a word is in the process of de-vulgarization for there to be a generation gap for several decades due to the older generations retaining the vulgar definition while the younger ones may be unaware that the word was ever considered vulgar.

  36. Ellen K. said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 5:37 pm

    If neither the speaker nor the listener has a certain connotation to go with a word, then that connotation is not there, for that particular instance of the word being used.

  37. Chandra said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 7:06 pm

    @Scott: "my guess is that the vast majority of people under the age of around 40 or so have never thought of the word as having a sexual meaning."

    My guess (as a person under 40 myself) would be that they'd be quite aware of the underlying meaning, but I suppose the only way to know for sure would be to conduct some kind of poll.

  38. Chandra said,

    April 20, 2011 @ 7:10 pm

    Let me make it clear here that I don't think people are walking around thinking, "oooh, fellatio" every time they say or hear someone say that something "sucks". As I said above, the shock value has been removed from the expression and people don't really think about it too deeply. But I think it's very likely that if you asked a random person where the expression comes from, they'd be able to make the connection.

  39. jan said,

    April 21, 2011 @ 10:41 am

    The hit movie "Uncle Buck" became a short-lived sitcom, remembered for only one thing…

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098937/trivia

    "The pilot caused a minor controversy in 1990 because of a scene where Maizy tells Uncle Buck: "You suck," the first time this had happened in an American network TV series."

  40. Tom said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 7:38 am

    A tangent perhaps:

    "You type in a particularly odious word or phrase—'incentivize,' say—…"

    "Incentivize" never really bothered me, but lately I have been hearing "incent" used in its place, as in, "You have to incent people to produce more." This back-back-formation struck me as odious indeed. I was told by a corporate recruiter that this is an established and universally accepted term and what was my problem.
    Thoughts, anyone?

  41. Peter G. Howland said,

    April 22, 2011 @ 11:40 pm

    @ Tom – I'm incented to note that I love your construction "I was told…what was my problem."

  42. bloix said,

    April 23, 2011 @ 8:03 am

    @Peter G. Howland-
    That sort of construction, in which a metaphorical quotation is embedded into a sentence without the "like" signal that would be used in speech, is something you see from time to time in snarky blog writing. E.g., from Feministe:

    She wasn’t interested in sex and stopped having sex with him (which does not give someone carte blanche to cheat, obviously, because come on).
    http://www.feministe.us/blog/

    From Whiskey Fire:
    I don't go to CCCC meetings, or to MLA, for reasons of meh.
    http://whiskeyfire.typepad.com/

  43. @boris_tweets said,

    April 23, 2011 @ 6:14 pm

    Look what I just found on David Weinberger's (Internet guru) blog:

    "Second, the access providers are also providers of services and content that compete with the organizations they serve. So, Comcast will undoubtedly find economic advantage in making sure that Comcast-NBC content shoulders aside Netflix’s offerings … and your offerings on YouTube. You’ll prefer using the video service that doesn’t suck…not knowing that removing Net neutrality’s economic point is to introduce artifical **suckage** onto the Internet." (Emphasis mine)

    http://www.hyperorg.com/blogger/2011/04/18/why-you-wont-care-that-the-net-isnt-neutral/

  44. Miriam said,

    April 25, 2011 @ 5:46 pm

    As for the suck's — fellatio connotation, "sucks ass" would be a good indicator that perhaps the thing being sucked is no longer exclusively dick.

  45. @boris_tweets said,

    May 31, 2011 @ 12:31 am

    Here's a transitive "unsuck"!

    P.S. Although I find this occurrence interesting, I'm not quite sure whether the promise of "unsucking" anything Canadian is too realistic. :)

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