29 July 2008

A Curious Prefix

A recent article in the MIT Technology Review was titled “An un-American feel aids expanding US Web firms.” This caught my eye, because it would be a surprising admission. The title seems to say that web-savvy American companies deliberately promote un-American content to help them make inroads with international customers.

However, it turns out that that is not at all what the article is about. Far from making an important statement about anti-Americanism, the piece simply makes a point that is trivially obvious: American companies would do well to recognize that customers in other countries like to see things that are familiar to them, as opposed to things that would be more familiar to Americans. To me, it’s pretty dull stuff.

So, why the provocative title? It is clear from the content that the title should have read “non-American” instead of “un-American.” It’s a curious misuse of the prefix. (I admit that I would not have bothered to read the article if it had used the much less interesting “non-American” adjective.)

Now, aware of the irony of having just declared the Technology Review article to be “dull stuff,” let me proceed to nitpick on the usage of these prefixes. My American Heritage Dictionary describes the subtle but important distinction between non- and un- as follows:

When used with adjectives, un- often has a sense distinct from that of non-. Non- picks out the set of things that are not in the category denoted by the stem to which it is attached, whereas un- picks out properties unlike those of the typical examples of the category.

In other words, if a stem adjective subsumes a set of properties – let us call it set A – then the non- prefix attached to the stem causes the word to refer to things that are outside of set A. The un- prefix attached to the stem causes the word to refer to things that are inside of set A, but unlike (or contrary to) those properties.

Thus, for example, John Ridpath, who is a passionate defender of the America ideals of individual rights and capitalism, is non-American because he happens to be a Canadian citizen. Michael Moore, an American citizen, is un-American because of his antagonism to American values. The Technology Review article highlighted certain preferences of citizens in China, South Korea, and Australia, but these preferences were simply different from those of typical Americans. They were non-American, not un-American.


1. Technology Review, “An un-American feel aids expanding US Web firms,” (http://www.technologyreview.com/Wire/21138/?nlid=1238&a=f)

I added a diagram to enhance clarity. (Thanks LB!)


LB said...

I think a Venn diagram would have nicely illustrated your point and know you have the technology to whip one up at a moment's notice.

It's not too late!

Stephen Bourque said...

Great idea, LB! I just did it.

LB said...

Not to be nit-picky or anything, but while your diagrams display your idea perfectly, I was expecting something a little more...how shall I say it...professional? With "John Ridpath" and "Michael Moore" floating around in space - at least Moore would float. Where is your MathCAD, MatLab, or even Excel (can Excel do that)?

I always appreciate a good mod-atomic kidney shape, though.

Stephen Bourque said...

I see your point, but I think what the hand drawing lacks in professionalism, it makes up for in immediacy and style. Frankly, I'm a little saturated with the diagrams that PowerPoint and Visio churn out. Sure, all the lines are straight, but it's boring.

There is a classic application note written by Jim Williams of Linear Technology called "Switching Regulators for Poets." On the last page, this brilliant electrical engineer drew a little picture just to fill up the space. It's not professional - and it's a terrible drawing - but it shows some personality. Plus, I still remember it after twenty years!