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I have heard it used by some people e.g. Jacque Fresco, for example here.

I know that people understand the meaning of the word "insane", but what about an average Joe and his understanding of the word "unsane"?

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'Unsane' has been used from at least 1808, but 'insane' is typically chosen one to two thousand times more frequently. I'm fairly articulate, and I wasn't aware that 'unsane' had ever been used. –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 2 '13 at 10:47
Native English speakers might understand it, but it would sound very 'wrong' to them. –  Mitch Nov 2 '13 at 18:39
My reaction to the question about the average Joe's "understanding of the word 'unsane'" was that it isn't a word but the average Joe would understand it anyway. But, in view of the scholarly answers, I'm compelled to admit that it was a word as recently as 1867. –  Andreas Blass Nov 3 '13 at 0:28

4 Answers 4

I expect all English speakers to understand sane and insane.

Although you might be able to find unsane in very large dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary, I would not expect many English speakers to be familiar with it. I imagine most speakers would understand it as a novel combination of un- with sane (meaning "not sane"). I would also imagine that it might take a moment to understand--although I can imagine some circumstances where it would be readily understood, particularly when contrasted with sane and when the prefix un- is stressed:

Alice: So you're saying he's sane?
Bob: Well, he's not un-sane.

But I wouldn't expect many native speakers to invent this word. Prefixing un- to sane is probably blocked for most speakers by the existence of insane. I think that anyone who did (re-)invent this word would be suspected of wordplay.

Barrie England's answer gives the result counts for insane and unsane in The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which I'll repeat here:

   insane       3760
   unsane       2

I decided to check those two results. Neither uses unsane as discussed here; they're both references to the band Unsane. So it's really 3760 to 0, which is a pretty big ratio. Unsane is nonstandard and is essentially never used. Avoid, avoid, avoid.

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Excellent research snailboat, or should i say, "Sherlock"? Lol! –  Kristina Lopez Nov 2 '13 at 18:38
To provide a balanced overview - even if for purely academic purposes - OED provides two example sentences for unsane as used in place of 'insane' - one from 1690 and the other from 1867. –  user49727 Nov 2 '13 at 19:17

There are just 2 records in the Corpus of Contemporary American English showing unsane and 3,760 showing insane. The figures in the British National Corpus are 1 and 369. I think we might be able to draw some conclusions from that.

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There’s definitely something unsanitary about using unsane to mean unhealthy. –  tchrist Nov 2 '13 at 13:36

It is a legitimate word, listed in OED, and should be understood by a native speaker. Much like the word unfact.

That said there is not a lot of rationale to prefer it over the commonly used alternatives.

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Which OED? It doesn't appear in the online OED: oxforddictionaries.com/spellcheck/english/?q=unsane –  Mark Bannister Nov 2 '13 at 14:37
Nope, I'm a native speaker, and if someone said unsane, I'd presume they weren't a native speaker and would tell them we say insane, provided they actually mean insane and not unsound. Unsound for general health is fine. –  bamboo Nov 2 '13 at 15:35
But, Lady Bamboo (I'm not sure about Mrs or Ms now I've been made aware of gender), isn't user49727 saying that all native speakers should be aware of all the words OED (version X) lists? Wikipedia has: Native speakers' vocabularies vary widely within a language, and are especially dependent on the level of the speaker's education. A 1995 study shows that junior-high students would be able to recognize the meanings of about 10,000-12,000 words, while for college students this number grows up to about 12-17,000 and for elderly adults up to about 17-21,000 or more. Out of 1,013,913+. Oops. –  Edwin Ashworth Nov 2 '13 at 15:58
@MarkBannister That's not the OED. Oxford makes more than one dictionary, and only one of them is the OED. (Not that I think it's terribly relevant whether the word is listed in the OED, mind you.) –  snailboat Nov 2 '13 at 17:39
English is an organic language without an authoritative lexicon. The OED is respected due to its breath and scholarly tradition, but it's not the arbiter of what is and isn't a word. A schoolchild in most English-speaking nations who used "unsane" would be more likely to have it marked as a spelling error than a variant usage. –  DougM Jun 12 at 14:04

Merriam-Webster, Unsane: lacking in sanity

Unsane and insane are different words. Insane is much stronger. Unsane means "not sane in some way", While insane has become something like "having lost all sanity". Insane is much more offensive.

English needs a word to express that someone, something is somewhat less than sane. The problem is that people to readily interpret it as a misspelling of insane.

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protected by Mitch Jun 12 at 13:40

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