Living Language: The Nay Sayers

It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. – Jack Winter, “How I Met My Wife”, The New Yorker, July 25, 1994

“No-one’s ever gruntled,” my editor-in-chief mused the other day. “Why not?”

Part of me wanted to tell her it was because there had been no good biscuits in the kitchen all week, but I have a strong streak of inner pedant that prattled, “Oh, it’s an unpaired negative. You see it occasionally, but I think disgruntled existed first …”

And indeed, a minute on the internet showed us that disgruntled came from the mid-1700s (dis = lots of + gruntle = little grunts) and gruntled was only invented for comic effect in 1930.

It’s one of a great many unpaired words that litter the language, usually in the negative form. (They’re also known as absent antonyms, since they lack opposite forms in common use.)

“There’s your homework,” she said. “Living Language on why we have no delibles, kempts and crepits. Off you go.” (Alas, still no biscuits.)

Left Behind

It wasn’t the hardest mission she’s ever given me. There are only two main types of these words scattered through the language.

The first group are words that are simply remnants. Once they had thriving positive forms, like kempt, which meant combed, and was all the rage in the 11th century.

Unkempt – like unruly, unwieldy and hapless – is an orphaned word that used to live in a pair but now just hangs around being negative like an unhappy divorcee. Around the time of Chaucer you might congratulate someone on their good hap, or luck, or on their ruly (well behaved) child, who was so wieldy (capable). But in recent centuries, we’ve moved over to words like lucky, good and coordinated for the positive meanings, leaving the negative of the pairs high and dry.

Some hold on in the grim crevasses of the crossword compiler’s mind, or trotted out by nonagenarian aunts. Defatigable makes the occasional poetic appearance from the weary wordsmith (though fatigable is a more “official” word), and effable is sometimes seen in the more pretentious corners of literary criticism. But for the most part, they remain only in the darker corners of dictionaries, quietly mouldering away.

Born This Way

The remaining unpaired negatives came into English alone. Some were negatives in their native tongue, others only sound as though they are.

Inept began life in the mid-16th century pinched straight from the Latin ineptus (unsuitable). Nonchalant arrived a century later, from the French verb nonchaloir (be indifferent to). Both are newcomers compared to uncouth, which came from the Old English unc¯uth, meaning “not able to”. Others in this pattern include indelible (from French, derived from Latin, “not able to be deleted”) and discordant (from Old French “not of one heart”).

All of these had a negative sense in their original languages, so it is logical to assume they might want a positive partner. But for inchoate (just begun) the “in” functions as an intensifier, not a negative, just as inflammable, for example, means very flammable, not flame-proof.

As mentioned at the start, disgruntled follows the same pattern, with the dis meaning lots. Dis was once more commonly used as an intensifier for already negative words. But of course, dis is also used as a negative, as in dismay (imported from Old French), and to mean apart, as in disparate (from the Latin disparatus – separated).

Discombobulate, on the other hand, came into the language wholly formed in the 19th century, probably as a comedic version of discompose.

It’s no wonder, really, that people who learn English later in life use many rude words to describe our alleged “rules”.

Out And In

All this change is still happening in English today. I’d hazard a guess that we meet ten disingenuouses per ingenuous in contemporary usage, especially in newspapers. And while dotage is thrown about with cheerful abandon, nonage seems to have gone out with George Bernard Shaw.

But it works both ways. Unpaired words that sound like they might fit into the first lost pair category, but were really born that way often give birth to their “positives” with what lexicographers describe as a “back-formation”. Ept was introduced by E.B. White in 1938 and has been used, usually to comedic effect, ever since. And delible is frequently an informal recommendation when it comes to children’s marker pens and paints.

Uncouth gave birth to couth in the late 19th century. An earlier couth existed in Old English, meaning known, which had an “un” form meaning unknown. But uncouth as “crude and clumsy” had no positive form until its unsung champion dismissed the un and gave us another term for neat and polished.

Despite often being done for comedic effect, this sort of word creation can fill gaps in the language. And most of the terms are easily understood, even when used for the first time.

Alas, not all unpaired negatives can have positives created for them. Disgust, dismay and dismember all come up against the problem that their dis-less parts already lead very successful lives of their own with disparate meanings. The same goes for bashful and ruthless, and the less said about feckless, the better.

In a perfect world, I’d be able to sign off by telling you that my filed story left my editor-in-chief gruntled. But since she’s far too genteel a person to sit in her office emitting little grunts, I’ll just say she was thoroughly plussed by the whole endeavour.

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