The Unsub

As a translator, I am always on the lookout for words and expressions that will increase my vocabulary. I guess that having started to read at a very early age gave me an edge in that regard.

But sometimes this edge is put to a test. Have you watched Criminal Minds lately? In the course of an episode one might stumble upon the word unsub several times, most likely in the lips of team chief Aaron Hotchner, the least likely to smile in the group.

I was puzzled when I heard it for the first time. Of course, the sequence of events makes it clear that the unsub is the one being sought, but as I heard it several times in an episode, I searched for it: the word is the result of the doble apocopation of unknown subject, and the subsequent assemblage of the remaining prefixes, which gives us unsub.

But this obliterative coupage flabbergasts me. Somehow, I cannot dissect subject as I can unknown; somehow the knife veers to a phantom letter between the b and the j, and I wonder if sub is a prefix here; what is ject? My lucubration steers me to the Latin perfect passive participle iacere – to throw. Thus subject the individual lies there – or rather is laid there – to be trodden upon, subjected; hence subject, hence unsub.

The truncation makes me wonder if I can elide both un and sub and get knownject; or expunge known and sub and get unject. But that might pose a predicament for Penélope García – who would like to be the faithful significant other of Derek Morgan, her glorified Odysseus, who remains oblivious to her not-so-veiled sexual innuendos: the ject part may remind her of reject, which is probably what comes to her mind whenever she teases Derek and he doesn’t fall for her big… eyes or her curls, blond or otherwise.

Unsubtle as she may be, though, she is quite instrumental in tracking the unsub. She is as skillful with her computer software as Dr. Spencer Reid, the exceptional genius of the FBI Criminal Minds team, is profiling the perps – perpetrators, that is.

Perpetration aside, though, I wonder if we can use unsub to describe an unknown subject of the Crown. The English perps I can think of are well known. Recently British Foreign Minister William Hague said “Time is of the essence,” on canceling his meeting with his Swedish homologue Carl Bildt to invest his time more profitably on devising ways to help Obama invert – not subvert anymore – the order in Syria and turn the whole Middle East asunder by blowing its states to smithereens.

Perhaps 10 Downing Street, and 9, 11, and 12, are dreaming of bygone times when their officers in Africa would enthrall – in both senses of the word – their African subjects by compelling them not to address them in English, as depicted in the movie The Four Feathers, for in that way they would no longer be unsubs, but… subords?


Carlos Mota.- Traductor, intérprete público y director de Traduce, C.A.

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