Entries linking to unspeakable
prefix of negation, Old English un-, from Proto-Germanic *un- (source also of Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Old High German, German un-, Gothic un-, Dutch on-), from PIE *n- (source of Sanskrit a-, an- "not," Greek a-, an-, Old Irish an-, Latin in-), combining form of PIE root *ne- "not." Often euphemistic (such as untruth for "lie").
The most prolific of English prefixes, freely and widely used in Old English, where it forms more than 1,000 compounds. It underwent a mass extinction in early Middle English, but emerged with renewed vigor 16c. to form compounds with native and imported words. It disputes with Latin-derived cognate in- (1) the right to form the negation of certain words (indigestable/undigestable, etc.), and though both might be deployed in cooperation to indicate shades of meaning (unfamous/infamous), typically they are not.
It also makes words from phrases (such as uncalled-for, c. 1600; undreamed-of, 1630s; uncome-at-able, 1690s; unputdownable, 1947, of a book; un-in-one-breath-utterable, Ben Jonson; etc., but the habit is not restricted to un-; such as put-up-able-with, 1812). As a prefix in telegramese to replace not and save the cost of a word, it is attested by 1936.
Old English specan, variant of sprecan "to speak, utter words; make a speech; hold discourse (with others)" (class V strong verb; past tense spræc, past participle sprecen), from Proto-Germanic *sprekanan (source also of Old Saxon sprecan, Old Frisian spreka, Middle Dutch spreken, Old High German sprehhan, German sprechen "to speak," Old Norse spraki "rumor, report"), from PIE root *spreg- (1) "to speak," perhaps identical with PIE root *spreg- (2) "to strew," on notion of speech as a "scattering" of words.
The -r- began to drop out in Late West Saxon and was gone by mid-12c., perhaps from influence of Danish spage "crackle," also used in a slang sense of "speak" (compare crack (v.) in slang senses having to do with speech, such as wisecrack, cracker, all it's cracked up to be). Elsewhere, rare variant forms without -r- are found in Middle Dutch (speken), Old High German (spehhan), dialectal German (spächten "speak").
Not the primary word for "to speak" in Old English (the "Beowulf" author prefers maþelian, from mæþel "assembly, council," from root of metan "to meet;" compare Greek agoreuo "to speak, explain," originally "speak in the assembly," from agora "assembly").
an unspeakable odor came sweeping into the room