I’ve always thought the word unpack was used only to mean “to remove something from a suitcase, a bag or a package, for instance.” But I’ve discovered that another meaning—until recently unfamiliar to me—is “to analyze something into its component elements.”
I started noticing this second meaning of unpack a few months ago while watching the TV talk show Tavis Smiley and hearing the host say over and over again—with what always seemed like the anticipation of discovery in his voice—that he wanted to unpack a statement just made by one of his guests.
Soon, I began listening for all the times Smiley would use this word on a given night or within a week. I didn’t really count the usages, but I became so aware of them that it seemed clear unpack had become his default word when he wanted a guest to explain in more detail what he/she really meant in answering his most recent question.
Once I became aware of Smiley’s repeated use of the word, I started looking for unpack in other places, noticing it in newspapers and magazines, and occasionally online.
Online, for example, I saw it used in Rollingstone.com’s article on Muscle Shoals, a new documentary film about the famous music studios in the Alabama town of the same name. In the article, writer Katie Van Syckle says, “The film unpacks the town’s musical significance by focusing on the two primary local studios—Fame and Muscle Shoals Sound….”
Syckle seems to stretch the meaning of the word a little further than Smiley does, going beyond using it to explain a statement to using it to provide a full description of a place.
Recently, I ran across the word in the 2013 book To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, by Phillip Lopate. In a chapter on James Baldwin, he quotes a long (almost two-page) paragraph from Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son.”
Then he writes, “It’s all there, in this paragraph, but it requires some unpacking: Baldwin’s sheer love of language; his intoxication with adjectives and adverbs….” And he continued to breakdown or open up Baldwin’s paragraph with his own 176-word sentence.
Smiley’s use of unpack seems to have declined somewhat of late, but he’s still at it. One recent week, for example, he used it twice: in interviews with comedian David Steinberg and actress Elizabeth Moss.
Steinberg had just mentioned why he thought having the opportunity to open for jazz musicians when he was starting out as a stand-up comedian was a good experience. Smiley’s response: “Since you went there, let me follow you in. There are a couple of things you said I want to go back to and get you to unpack.”
Moss, one of the stars of “Mad Men,” had just given a number of reasons why she had taken the lead role in the new “Top of the Lake” miniseries, when Smiley remarked, “You said a couple of things I want to go back to and kind of have you unpack for me in no particular order.”
This new-to-me use of unpack is almost visual, like the opening of a flower, carrying with it the expectation of something meaningful and truthful, something not to missed.