Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

The Clean and the Unclean

"And the leper in whom the plague is, his clothes shall be rent, and his head bare, and he shall put a covering upon his upper lip, and shall cry, 'Unclean, unclean.'"
—Leviticus 13:45, King James Version

"Make no mistake, if they send us a [bill] that is unclean, they are virtually shutting down the government."
—Senator Charles Schumer (late September, 2013)

The distance between the Biblical use of unclean and the meanings that might be inferred from Senator Charles Schumer's use of it is surely very great — chronologically, and, one would hope, semantically. But it was an unusual choice of words from the Senator, an articulate and intelligent speaker. He could have used any number of non-negated adjectives to characterize what he expected might issue from the House of Representatives, he could have said "not clean," or he could even have simply said "an unclean bill," rather than showcasing the adjective at the end of the clause. What associations reverberate from his use of unclean to characterize the budget legislation that he thought might be returned to the Senate from the House?

As un- words go, unclean is marked in a number of ways. First of all, by being extremely ancient, being present in Old English in nearly identical form. Here's a screenshot of the beginning of the OED entry for the adjective.

Second, unclean, from its debut in English, is a word freighted with far more associations that you would expect from a word that simply negates an extremely common and frequent adjective. Third, unclean is, despite its ancient pedigree, infrequent in English today, a fact this is surely connected with the second point: unclean is so laden with connotations of moral turpitude and disease that it's problematic to use it if you intend no more than a relatively judgment-free idea of "not clean." Unclean is used today overwhelmingly in writing on religion — an unsurprising fact when you take into account that unclean appears nearly 200 times in many standard Bible translations. Its most frequent collocation is "unclean spirit," another Biblical term with several mainly New Testament appearances. In Old Testament usage, the distinction between clean and unclean is frequently in reference to detriments from ritual purity. Leviticus has numerous references to uncleanliness as it pertains to animals and food, disease, and bodily discharges, all of which present impediments to those who would stand in the presence of God.

All-purpose negating words, particles or affixes are a common and handy feature of languages generally so perhaps it's worth asking: when is adjectival negation via un- an act that requires exegesis because the speaker or writer is motivated by something more than convenience? In most cases it may be impossible to know: words do, most of the time, simply pour out of us and we may be at a loss to explain their provenance. But a statistical approach may shed some light on factors that influence the choice of a negated adjective in place of one that carries a similar meaning without the presence of a negating morpheme.

The headline adjectives in English — those with extremely high frequencies (in the top 200 of English word frequencies overall) are rarely negated with un-. Most of them, such as new, good, large, or high, have an all-purpose antonym that is the best choice to convey the opposite meaning. This is, again, a feature typical of languages generally, and perhaps especially characteristic of English, a language that is synonym-rich in adjectives — we often have a choice of a Latinate or Germanic derivative, with or without differences in nuance. The three most frequent un- adjectives in English are unable, unlikely, and unusual, and even they are all less frequent than their unprefixed opposites.

A handy tool that modern corpus linguistics has made available is the distributional thesaurus. A traditional thesaurus, somewhat like the Visual Thesaurus, catalogs words that share an element of meaning. A distributional thesaurus takes a strictly statistical approach. It tells you, for a given word, what other words in the language, surveyed across a corpus, behave in about the same way — which is to say, team up with the same words in the same syntactic slots across hundreds or thousands of sentences. As an example: words that are distributionally similar to the adjective unusual are, in descending order, strange, extraordinary, unique, interesting, odd, distinctive. As you can see, none of these words is a negated adjective, and they are all, perhaps aside from interesting, acceptable traditional synonyms of unusual. By contrast, words that are distributionally similar to unclean are, again in descending order, impure, filthy, immoral, polluted, unworthy, unsanitary. This list is interesting for two reasons: the preponderance of other negated adjectives, and the presence of other adjectives that carry a strong connotation of undesirability and moral opprobrium.

In their monumental study called Metaphors We Live By, authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson remark (in the afterword to the book, newly written for the current edition), that

Our basic understanding of morality arises via conceptual metaphor. There is a system of approximately two dozen metaphors that arise spontaneously out of common, everyday experience in cultures around the world. Since morality is concerned with well-being, whether one's own or that of another, fundamental experiences concerning well-being give rise to conceptual metaphors for morality. People are better off in general if they are strong not weak; if they can stand upright rather than having to crawl; if they eat pure, not rotten, food; and so on. These correlations give rise to metaphors of morality as strength and immorality as weakness, morality as uprightness and immorality as being low, morality as purity and immorality as rot, and so on.

What, then, was Senator Schumer really suggesting when he warned about the unacceptability of a "bill that was unclean" being passed to the Senate? Whether intentionally or not, he used a word that resonated at a much deeper level than might seem warranted by the circumstances. The Senator gets credit for a brilliant rhetorical flourish. Whether it resulted in a bill that was "unclean" is still being debated today.

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Friday November 1st 2013, 5:13 AM
Comment by: ThomasK
This reminded me of what was termed 'biological-pathological' metaphors. 'Clean' comes close to 'healthy', 'pure', and has a "terrific" impact, I think.
Thank God linguists can analyse this and point this out...

Thanks for the hint at a distributional thesaurus. I need to find one. (References welcome)
Friday November 1st 2013, 6:12 AM
Comment by: John B. (Baker, LA)
sure! locate and post the "distributional thesaurus," please.
Friday November 1st 2013, 9:22 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thomas and John: any large corpus can serve as the basis for getting distributional statistics about word behavior, but the right querying software helps a lot! I use Sketch Engine (, a subscription-based service that is well worth the cost if you do research in languages. Thanks for your comments.
Friday November 1st 2013, 12:01 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
I have fond memories of the word; "metaphore" in French. When I consult to my dictionnary the word
metaphor with e in French , is a process by which one carries the inherent of a word to another meaning that ,suits it by vertue of a comparaison implied . Ex; the light of the spirit, or "ficelle" means a sort of French bread.
Friday November 1st 2013, 12:20 PM
Comment by: catwalker (Ottawa Canada)
I notice in your discussion of the 'headline adjectives' that you don't identify a standard antonym for 'clean.' I nominate 'dirty.' The contrast between 'dirty' and 'unclean' also illustrates your point about the specialized meaning of 'unclean' with respect to ritual and morality. 'Dirty' can mean immoral (dirty magazines), but its mainstream application is more mundane.
Friday November 1st 2013, 1:00 PM
Comment by: Kevin G. (Thousand Oaks, CA)
I can recall so well when my age was in the single digits and where my parochial education prepared my prepubescent self for the sacrament of confession. In that process pupils were equipped with a checklist aligned to the the realm of the "thou shalt not"commandments. We were expected to self-report any notions of "unclean or impure thoughts" against the rigors of the sixth commandment on adultery and ninth commandment on coveting thy neighbor's wife. Later on it occurred to me that there was a Pareto principle in play when conjecturing that 80% of sinful thoughts and deeds were tied to 20% of the ten commandments.
Friday November 1st 2013, 1:08 PM
Comment by: Anthony R.
This is one of the more thoughtful contemporary articles I have read in the Monthly Column for Word Lovers. Thanks.
Friday November 1st 2013, 11:01 PM
Comment by: Will Stott
I dare say the Senator's words were carefully chosen. Rhetorically, his use of 'unclean' is exquisite, in an old sense of this word (i.e., of language, expression, terms: carefully selected; aptly chosen, choice. Hence, out of the way, uncommon ... O.E.D). Your essay, too, is exquisite!-delightful, circumspect, provocative, and well written. Thank you. I especially enjoyed your use of statistics as, among other things, a way to take the ethical measure of Shumer's remark. Like any good explication does, your reading of '[a bill] that is unclean' makes explicit what remains mostly implied in a more casual, or uncritical understanding. If you had closed with the lists of adjectives, your essay would have been very interesting. By adding the passage from Lakoff & Johnson your conclusion opened up some thought-provoking ideas; you end by extended the basin and range. Well done. I really appreciate your article. Take care.
Thursday November 14th 2013, 11:54 PM
Comment by: Susan C.
More than one religious or ethnic group has used the label of others' customs or practices as "unclean" to reinforce ties or identity. It can serve as a marker for one's own superiority as well. I remember an old National Geographic article on the Roma where the author wrote that they felt other groups were unclean because only they [the Roma] used segregated towels to dry the top and bottom halves after bathing. Indeed, I know of no other groups who do this.

Thanks for showing how using this term politically can serve similar purposes, perhaps.

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