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Which verb is more appropriate (and older) for clearing out my desk: declutter or unclutter and why?

  • I should declutter my desk
  • I should unclutter my desk

Dictionary.com defines declutter

verb (used with object), verb (used without object)
1. to remove mess or clutter from (a place).

The entry fails to mention its origins but directs us to clutter

Origin 1550-1560; variant of clotter (now obsolete), equivalent to clot + -er

Merriam-Webster for unclutter says:

transitive verb:
to remove clutter from: make neat and orderly, unclutter the garage

First Known Use (1930)

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    I would use declutter for clearing my desk, and (for no reason I can explain besides the fact that it sounds more natural) unclutter for clearing my mind of unwanted concerns. This is one of those situations where people's individual preferences probably vary considerably.
    – Erik Kowal
    Sep 17, 2014 at 6:59
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    @Erik Sherlock might have problems deciding; he has a mind-palace. Sep 17, 2014 at 7:23
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    @EdwinAshworth - And there was me thinking it was just another one of those rather ordinary Holmes.
    – Erik Kowal
    Sep 17, 2014 at 7:32
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    Yes ... B-rated. Sep 17, 2014 at 7:37
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    Thank you @ElberichSchneider but your Italian makes me laugh, it's comprehensible though :)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 17, 2014 at 19:03

3 Answers 3

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Looking at the two prefixes in question (de- and un-) they are both used to indicate the opposite of as in the case of declutter and unclutter.

de- prefix

  • used to add the meaning 'opposite', 'remove', or 'reduce' to a noun or verb: deforestation the denationalization of the coal industry Once you've written a computer program, you have to debug (= remove the errors from) it.

un- prefix

  • used to add the meaning 'not', 'lacking', or 'the opposite of' before adjectives, adverbs, verbs, and nouns: unrealistic unhappily unscrew unfairness.

Source: www.dictionary.cambridge.org

Ngram shows that declutter is a bit more recent in usage than unclutter and that they are not very common terms compared to the the adjective (Ngram) uncluttered.

According to: www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk

Declutter first usage:

Mr Editor, why not lead a campaign to de-clutter education? You would have the support of many Scottish teachers who have had their fill of banking, dairying, ... ”
Wednesday 22 November 1944 , Dundee Courier , Angus, Scotland

enter image description here Source:http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/search/results?basicsearch=declutter

I think they are both appropriate to describe the action of clearing your desk.

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First personal opinion, second research (because the research can only be motivated by opinion).

As an AmE speaker, 'uncluttered' seems to me to be the canonical adjective; 'decluttered' sounds a little strange, like someone couldn't remember the usual word and picked a (very reasonable) prefix out of many reasonable ones. A verb to result in that situation (of actively removing a mess) would naturally be 'unclutter', but 'declutter' also sounds like it should work.

Using google as an informal research tool, unclutter existed well before 'declutter', but has in the past 10 years declined in favor of 'declutter'.

The OED (online version; behind a security wall) has an entry for 'unclutter' dated to 1930. For 'declutter', there is no entry.

Other online dictionaries seem to have both in equal measure.

Just because everyone uses it doesn't mean it's the standard usage.In informal speech or writing 'declutter' is fine, but in formal usage, the longer history of 'unclutter' seems to favor it.

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  • There are a number of self-help books with the theme of "Declutter your homes" (by the way all American) which are responsible for the spike.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 17, 2014 at 18:18
  • see this link
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 17, 2014 at 18:21
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The earliest mention of unclutter

I found is dated 1922 in a novel entitled Saint Theresa written by the the American novelist, Henry Sydnor Harrison.

Talk slanted off to the general problem of the records. The expert's plan to set up a separate "dead" file, to help unclutter the present broken-down system, proved pleasing to the sales manager who confessed that as the files were now, he was frequently guilty of "holding out" on them. 'T was n't right, but what was a man to do?

This predates Merriam-Webster's aforementioned claim (1930) by a number of years. I would like to know if The Oxford English Dictionary has an older citation.

Conversely, the earliest citation I found for declutter

is dated much later, 1961, in Volume 129 of Country Life

Action Against Clutter

It has been said that because only abnormal happenings make news, virtue does not qualify for the reporter's attention .... Happily, that is not an absolute truth. An appreciable amount of publicity has been accorded to the fact that the period between June 5 and 12 was declutter week, in which a well-organised effort was [rest snipped off]

And “de-clutter”

which pre-dates my reference, Wednesday 22 November 1944, found by @Josh61

I have looked in Etymology Online and in Oxford Dictionaries Online too, neither of these authoritative references provide dates and Etymonline, surprisingly, completely ignores both terms.


This leads me to conclude that unclutter has the longer history while declutter appears to have been coined twenty years later in the United Kingdom.

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