Grammar Moses: A February unthaw?

I know you’ve all been enjoying the balmy weather of late, despite all of the sports-related injuries caused as people shrug off their wintry cocoons to go hard on the golf course or basketball court without having the good sense to warm up before or cool down after.

These hints of spring weather in February can make us goofy in the head and forget how old we are.

The mere act of Mother Nature warming up at odd times like these prompts someone to ask: Does ice “thaw” or “unthaw”?

It depends on a lot of things, including where you grew up, who you hang out with and whether there were any nuns at your school.

“This morning on Good Morning America the reporter said, ‘Everyone is waiting for the ice to unthaw.’ That seemed ridiculous to me since I know ‘thaw’ means to warm up and melt, so to ‘unthaw’ would seem to mean the opposite, as to freeze. But I Googled it and ‘unthaw’ means the same as ‘thaw,’” wrote Jeanine Kenaga. “How is that possible?”

The simple answer, Jeanine, is that for hundreds of years — before books were widely available and English instruction was, well, more basic than it would become — some people used “unthaw” when they meant “thaw.”

Through popular use in speech, “unthaw” became a variant of “thaw.”

No less than poet Alexander Pope used “unthaw’d” to describe a still-frozen river.

The variant is uncommon in books, which generally employ more formal language. When comparing “thaw” to “unthaw” in Google’s Ngram Viewer (which examines word usage in books dating back to 1800) “unthaw” barely registers.

Comparing “thaw” to “unfreeze” gives you a similar result. In fact, “unfreeze” barely existed until almost 1930, when refrigeration began to take hold in the American home. Not surprisingly, “defrost” came on the scene at the same time, no doubt as a result of people’s preoccupation with mining the ice caves that developed in refrigerators of the day so one could store food in them.

My theory is the act of thawing something is to undo the freezing of something. Hence, you might feel compelled to attach an “un-” prefix to it.

I know, I know. It seems silly to accept “unthaw” to mean the same thing as “thaw,” but it’s people who make words, not dictionaries. And, at least in this country, you have a choice of which word to use. Dictionaries chronicle our changing language. That’s why we see new editions published regularly. A dictionary is not the Bible or the Quran. It wasn’t made to be everlasting. The people most concerned with words know this.

The dictionary you saved from college is a quaint relic, suited to its time but not to ours.

“Unthaw” isn’t the only word that arose from misuse. Take “flammable.”

The original word was “inflammable,” which was derived from the Latin inflammare, which means “to set on fire.”

Confusing “thaw” and “unthaw” is not likely to cause anyone harm, unless it’s dinnertime and the steaks you thought were thawed are unthawed. But that’s not the case with misunderstanding “inflammable.”

The variant “flammable” gained popularity over concerns that someone would see the “in-” prefix on “inflammable” and believe it to mean something that could NOT be set on fire.

The Ngram Viewer shows us that “flammable” started to gain popularity at the end of World War I and by the late 1950s had taken over as the dominant choice.

“Nonflammable” is a universally understood word if you’re putting a label on something that won’t catch fire, although I don’t know who would need a sign that declares something safe.

My advice: If you’re following a tanker truck and see a little hazmat sign on the back of it, you’re probably not behind a truck carrying milk and it’s best to give it a wide berth.

Write carefully!

• Jim Baumann is vice president/executive editor of the Daily Herald. You can buy Jim’s book, “Grammar Moses: A humorous guide to grammar and usage,” at Write him at and put “Grammar Moses” in the subject line. You also can friend or follow Jim at

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