Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I've heard this phrase several times but was given several contradictory interpretations. Please provide an exact meaning of the phase.

share|improve this question

5 Answers 5

up vote 30 down vote accepted

In the literal sense, this refers to something becoming untied, unwrapped, unfastened, etc. For example:

Be careful with that gift. If it comes undone, they'll be able to see what is inside.

In the figurative sense, it means that something has either not gone as planned, or has failed in some way. E.g. a plan can come undone meaning it hasn't worked as expected. A person can come undone meaning that they have lost their composure or self-control.

Andy came undone when Ann left him for Steve.

share|improve this answer
1  
I assume the OP was referring to the second sense there, which is derived out of the first. To mean the plans have fallen apart. –  Orbling Dec 7 '10 at 20:53
4  
@orbling - I agree the second sense is more likely the problem, but since he'd heard several conflicting definitions, I wanted to be a bit more explicit. –  Dusty Dec 7 '10 at 21:48
    
Quite right. –  Orbling Dec 7 '10 at 22:07

In modern English, it is the counterpart of "do up", meaning to fasten (by whatever method - tie, glue, knot, zip, velcro). It is nearly always used literally, but when it is used of a person, it normally means that their clothing has become unfastened.

In older English, it could be used in a more abstract sense, so "I am undone" could mean something like "my life (or my wealth, or my reputation) is ruined". Modern readers often find the phrase amusing, because its modern meaning is so closely related to clothing.

share|improve this answer
    
Good explanation, thanx. –  Denys S. Jan 19 '11 at 15:55

If a strap or a knot or some other kind of binding comes undone, it opens by accident and no longer binds anything.

If a plan or a scheme or a plot comes undone, it does the same thing. This is a figurative sense that parallels the literal sense.

share|improve this answer

Reinforcing what Colin said, "undone" means ruined. Two cites:

And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.

-- Isaiah (KJM) 6:4-5

and

She's come undone

She didn't know what she was headed for

And when I found what she was headed for

It was too late

-- The Guess Who, "Undun", 1969

share|improve this answer

It's hard to explain in clear words, but the concept is clear, undo someone/thing, fall apart someone/thing.

To come undone is like saying something is finally fading away. I think the concept would be something like "to unbecome", but fall apart is very clear.

share|improve this answer

protected by RegDwigнt Mar 31 '12 at 10:29

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.