unsatisfactoriness and unsatisfaction

In a note on my little posting on the zero-nouning of the adjective unsatisfactory, in which I mentioned the (somewhat awkward) default –ness nominalization unsatisfactoriness, commenter TC floats, somewhat hesitantly, the possibility of a –tion nominalization unsatisfaction.

Here a few quick remarks on the two items in dictionaries and on the Web.

Both are in OED2 with the sense, roughly, ‘state or quality of being unsatisfactory’. This dictionary doesn’t actually gloss unsatisfactoriness, though, since its compilers took it to be a semantically transparent derivative of unsatisfactory; the gloss I just gave is merely the one appropriate for transparent nominalizations in –ness.

Unsatisfactoriness is in many smaller dictionaries, but usually just as an unglossed add-on to the entry for unsatisfactory, along with the equally transparent unsatisfactorily. See NOAD2 or M-W Collegiate. (AHD4 lists only unsatisfactorily.) As far as I can tell, unsatisfaction isn’t in smaller dictionaries in this sense (OED2 marks this sense as obsolete, since the 17th century in fact), though it’s in OED2 (and in Urban Dictionary) in senses that can be glossed as ‘non-satisfaction’ and ‘dissatisfaction’.

On to the OED2 entries, which I’ll give here in their entirety. (These appear to have been taken over as they stand from OED1, so that you can’t conclude anything from the fact that citations come to a halt in the 19th century.) First,


1643 PRYNNE Sov. Power Parl. I. (ed. 2) Pref. A2 The insufficiency and unsatisfactorinesse of all late Printed Pleas. 1679 J. GOODMAN Penit. Pard. I. iv. 113 The emptiness and unsatisfactoriness of all the Incomes of sin. 1807 G. CHALMERS Caledonia I. II. vi. 275 The unsatisfactoriness of the one, and the silence of the other, lead us to suppose [etc.]. 1876 LOWELL Among my Bks. Ser. II. 1. 6 The unsatisfactoriness of science leads Faust to seek repose in worldly pleasure.

Unsatisfactoriness comes up on the Web with modest frequency, mostly (so far as I can tell) in religious discussions, particularly of Buddhism. It has the feel of a technical term, and so might seem awfully formal, as it would have in Gail Collins’s NYT column quoted in my previous posting. But it’s always available.

On to:


1. Absence of satisfaction.

1643 DIGBY Observ. Relig. Med. (1644) 36 Nor have [I] any unsatisfaction in believing there are Spirits. 1675 T. PLUME Life Hacket in Hacket Cent. Serm. p. xliii, He thought the permission of conventicles did shew great irresolution and unsatisfaction in the truth. 1865 MRS. WHITNEY Gayworthys xxx, An earnestness that searched through all things even to unsatisfaction and scepticism. 1880 CARPENTER in Mod. Review I. 49 The unsatisfaction (if I may revive an obsolete word) of resting in any inherent ‘potency’ of Matter as the ultima ratio of the existing Kosmos.

{dag}2. Unsatisfactoriness. Obs.

1645 BP. HALL Remedy Discontents 94 The mean valuation of all these earthly things, for their transitorinesse, unsatisfaction, danger. 1668 R. STEELE Husbandman’s Calling vi. §5 Thence he learns the unsatisfaction of the creature and that God and Heaven are the only rest of the soul.

Here the ‘unsatisfactoriness’ sense is obsolete, having apparently not occurred in over 200 years before OED1 was compiled. So it would really have been an unsuitable — even unsatisfactory — choice for Collins.

The ‘non-satisfaction, failure to satisfy’ sense, though, is fairly robust, as is a ‘dissatisfaction, being dissatisfied’ sense; OED2 puts these together as ‘absence of satisfaction’ (both shades of meaning taking us back to the verb satisfy and an evocation of someone experiencing satisfaction, or not), and some of its cites lean one way and some the other. In any case, ‘the state or quality of not being satisfied’ or ‘dissatisfied’ would be pretty good glosses for “Unsatisfaction” as the title of a track from the 1984 album Folk of the 80’s (Part III) by Men Without Hats (a Canadian synth-pop group), which begins

I’m never satisfied when the answers could be real
I may not know what’s right but I know this can’t be it

As a little bonus, there’s also an obsolete verb meaning something like ‘fail to satisfy’:


1652 SHIRLEY Doubtful Heir Ded., I have presumed thus rather to let you know I can still honour you than unsatisfy myself by neglecting the first opportunity of presenting my service.

This might have been the base for the noun unsatisfaction that survived the 17th century (while vanishing itself), but I don’t see any way for us to tell.

I know, I know, you can’t get no satisfaction.

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