March 19, 2015
Weekly Language Usage Tips: irresectable or unresectable
A reader writes:
I came across the term ‘irresectable’ in a manuscript that I was reviewing and my immediate reaction was ‘that needs to be changed – it isn’t even a word’. In fact, it is not a word as far as I can tell, but numerous manuscripts have been published with the term, which is used in place of unresectable.
Curious about your thoughts on this . . .
Okay, this one needs a little explanation. Let’s start with the definition of ‘resection’ and take it from there. ‘Resection’ is chiefly used in the medical world, and there it means ‘surgical removal of an organ or other body part.’ So, it follows that ‘resectable’ means ‘able to be surgically removed.’ So, if we follow our pattern, ‘unresectable’ refers to something that ‘can’t be surgically removed.’ It’s often used in conjunction with a discussion of cancer, referring to an unresectable tumor, that is, an inoperable tumor.
And our reader is correct, irresectable is not a word. It is used, but by my count, not nearly as often as unresectable. On Google, it only showed up ~5,400 times compared with approximately 140,000 appearances by unresectable. Why people started using it, I can only guess. Maybe the idea of doubling the ‘Rs’, seemed more desirable than starting the word with the clunky ‘un.’ Or maybe, they were following the patterns of ‘irrelevant,’ ‘irrespective,’ ‘irresistible,’ and others.
NOTE: Irresistible ends with ‘ible,’ not ‘able.’
So we are talking about negative prefixes. The main negative prefixes are non, un, in (and associated il, im, and ir), a, and anti. ‘Non’ can precede most any word. ‘Un’ usually precedes adjectives. ‘In’ (and its partners, ‘im,’ ‘il,’ and ‘ir’) precedes certain Latin derivatives. ‘A’ precedes Greek derivatives, and ‘anti’ brings the sense of ‘against’ to the table. It can be hard to figure which prefix to use. I usually rely on my ear. When in doubt, ‘non’ always works. But enough with the negativity—I have a good feeling that it is soon going to be Spring.