A subtle mistake
Geoff Nunberg had a post recently at Language Log that pointed out an error that flies under the radar.
They had only just moved in; their boxes lay on the kitchen floor, still unpacked.Notice the error? The boxes lay on the floor, still packed, not unpacked. A glaring error, right?
Jesse Sheidlower wrote in to say there are several references to unpacked used in this way in the OED's files.
So how many times do you have to see something in print before it becomes a legitimate use? For copy editors -- we're a conservative lot -- that bar is set quite high. (It's our job to act as arbiters in such manner, not to merely reflect what usages are out there.)
But for even the descriptivists, this is a problematic usage. Nunberg said in a separate post:
Well, "legitimate" comes with a lot of ideological lint clinging to it, but my sense is still that this is an error, if a common and inviting one. After all, it's hard to see how un- could be plausibly reanalyzed as a mere intensifier; more likely this is an idiosyncratic sort of haplology, where the form unpacked stands in for ununpacked. The decisive question ... would be whether the writers of these passages would defend the usage if the apparently anomalous use of unpacked were pointed out to them.Sheidlower was one step ahead of the game and had already tried to contact the sources. He found one, who admitted it was a mistake (and also blamed his editor). He also asked several other language types, one a fact checker at the New Yorker, another an editor at Slate. All had a problem with the usage, though most didn't notice the error at first.
UPDATE: Languagehat has a blog entry on the word, too. He is firmly in the other camp, saying:
People who think language should be a certain way even though it's not, even in their own usage, are perfectly willing to condemn their own usage and say "it's wrong, I won't do it again..." You can't depend on users' judgments in these matters, you have to look at the facts of usage, and based on what I've seen at the Log, one meaning of unpacked is '(still) packed.' The fact that it contradicts the older meaning is irrelevant; context will disambiguate, just as it does with other self-contradictory words like sanction.