In many words beginning with “un” the first two letters mean “not”, as in the words unhappy, unwell and unambitious. The “un” part rhymes with “fun”. In other cases, the first two letters are part of the longer prefix “uni”, meaning “one”, as in universe, uniform and unicycle. The “un” part rhymes with “June”. You know this already. You have heard and read words like unwell and uniform often enough to know how they are pronounced. Like me, you might have to look a little more closely at “uniformed” and “uninformed” to make sure that you know what they mean and how they are pronounced. Not every word beginning “uni” is derived from the Latin, Old French or Middle English form of “one”: uninhibited, uninspired, unintentional.
All of this has been on my mind because of the word “unanimous”. My daughter read it late last month in the context of “Strictly Come Dancing”. The judges were unanimous in their decision to keep Graeme and Oti in the competition on 28 October: all four judges voted for the couple. My daughter was unfamiliar with the word, and started to read it aloud as if the first two letters rhymed with “fun”, as if the word meant the opposite of “animous”. It doesn’t, as you know, but the error was understandable. As usual, I did not adopt my father’s approach to education, which often involved asking “How come you don’t know that”, and observing “I knew that when I was your age”. I said that it meant everyone agreed on the same thing. I didn’t know the derivation of the word, unlike “philanthropist”, which my daughter also encountered while reading about “Strictly Come Dancing” last month, and which prompted this previous “Word of the Week”. This Oxford Dictionaries definition tells us that the origin of unanimous is Latin, unanimus (“from unus ‘one’ + animus ‘mind’”). For the record it’s the only time in the last four shows that the judges have been unanimous in their decision. The rest of the time they have been split. As a family we too were unanimous, both last month and again last night, in wanting Graeme Swann to remain in this year’s “Strictly Come Dancing”.