If you’ve been to an academic or business conference fairly recently, you’ve probably heard a professor or other erudite colleague suggest “unpacking” something, though they probably don’t mean unzipping a suitcase and removing its contents — unless they’ve lost their flash drive in there.
The word “unpack” has been in use for more than 500 years in a literal sense, but sometime in the 16th century when it was still fairly new, writers and philosophers began to use the word to describe unpacking more than just luggage. The word started to show up in literature to mean confessing one’s inner feelings — as in Act 2, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” when the titular character “Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words.”
While Shakespeare may have given the word literary currency in the early 1600s, some contemporary audiences are not as fond of its usage in this way.
“My own gut sense is that there’s something corporate about the word that doesn’t fit in a literary setting,” says Naomi J. Williams, a writer and editor who has taught creative writing at UC Davis, Sacramento City College and the low-residency MFA program at Ashland University in Ohio. (She’s also the author of the 2015 historical fiction novel “Landfalls.”)
Williams is right — the word seems to have fallen out of favor in literature during the last century and has instead planted itself squarely in the purview of academia. William’s husband, Dan Fuchs, an attorney for the State of California specializing in water law, agrees, saying he almost never hears the word in legal settings. Because there are very specific protocols in law for analyzing an issue (statutory language, case law, etc.), “people don’t really need to ‘unpack’ things so much as go through the clearly laid-out steps in the proper order.” Instead, he feels the word is “primarily an academic rather than corporate word,” citing the example of a professor mentioning a famous quote or well-known term and “unpacking” it — discussing its larger historical, socioeconomic or philosophical implications. He says that though the word is often overused, it can still be useful in the right context.
With the advent of computers in the middle of the last century, the word gained yet another definition that’s almost as literal as its first. Merriam-Webster describes “computer data that is converted from a compressed format to an uncompressed and usable format is said to be unpacked,” or broken down into smaller, usable pieces for easier comprehension.
Though there are people who like to see the word abandoned — it made Michigan’s Lake Superior State University’s 43rd annual List of Words Banished from the Queen’s English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness in 2017 — it still has value in business or academic contexts when the comprehension of a subject or computer file requires a detailed examination of its constituent parts.
Or when you need to find your flash drive at the bottom of your suitcase.
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