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Unpaired words

Re-reading P G Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters the other day reminded me of the many words in English which are the negatives of words whose positive forms are now obsolete or rare. He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled. There are many such unpaired negatives. We can say someone is unkempt, unruly, disconsolate or uncouth, but we can’t normally say that he is kempt, ruly, consolate or couth unless we are exploiting the unfamiliar word for humorous effect. It is very often the negated form which has survived: we seem to find negative words more useful and so more enduring. It’s clearly not the disapproving or derogatory meaning we seek in these negatives, as we can describe something as ineffable, unscathed, indomitable, innocent or innocuous but not the inverse.

The word unkempt has a complicated history. Kempt comes from the Old English word kemb, “comb”. It seems to have gone out of use about 1600 but to have been reintroduced about 1860. Its usual and literal negative form was unkembed which survived into the middle of the nineteenth century. The form unkempt began to be used about 1580 to mean “language that was inelegant or unrefined”. In the eighteenth century it came to mean specifically “uncombed; dishevelled”, perhaps influenced by the Flemish equivalent ongekempt, and was used alongside the older form for about a century, only taking on a stronger sense of “neglected; not cared for” in the middle of the nineteenth century. Incidentally, the root form of kemb seems to come from a Germanic form which meant “tooth”, so a comb is named for its teeth; the modern form uncombed appeared about 1560.

Hardly anyone who uses unruly realises that it was originally formed as the opposite of ruly, an adjective formed about 1400 from rule (as in rule of law), to mean “law-abiding; disciplined; orderly”. Someone unruly was ungovernable or disorderly; the modern sense is a weakening of this. Someone ungainly is now “awkward, clumsy, ungraceful”, a sense which developed about 1600; its opposite gainly, never very common, was formed sometime after 1300 from the adjective gain, meaning “straight; near”. This was used especially in the phrase the gainest way, meaning the shortest, most direct route, but it quickly took on a figurative sense when applied to people of “well-disposed; kindly”, and of “useful; convenient” for objects; the root form is also the source of our words again and against. Unwieldy comes from an Old English verb wield, derived from the same Indo-European source meaning “to be strong” as the Latin word from which we get valient. It variously meant “rule; govern; command; possess” and “to control; manage; deal with successfully”. Its adjective wieldy was derived from this latter sense and applied to persons, not things, in the sense “capable of wielding one’s body or weapon; active, agile, nimble”. So to be unwieldy was to be clumsy or incapable or infirm. Only later was the word transferred to the thing being manipulated to give us the modern sense. Our word untoward is formed from an obsolete medieval sense of toward applied to young people: “promising; making good progress; moving forward (in ability)”; untoward was first applied only to people in the sense of “stubborn; intractable; disinclined (to work)” and developed its modern meaning of “unseemly; inconvenient; perverse” from about 1630.

Strictly speaking, inept doesn’t belong in this list, as there was never a word ept of which it was the negative form. It was actually formed from the Latin ineptus, “unsuited, absurd, foolish”, at the beginning of the seventeenth century. However, it just scrapes a place because ept was created from it in modern times (by E B White of the New Yorker in 1938) and it turns up from time to time in humorous or deliberately incongruous contexts, as do its derived forms eptly and eptitude. Similarly, dishevelled comes from the Old French deschevelé and was not derived from a word shevelled. That word was created from it later by losing its first syllable through a process called aphesis and had the same sense. However, it was never common and has long since vanished from the lexicon.

There are a number of other words which begin with in or dis and so look like English negative formations but which came into the language from French or Latin with their negative prefixes already present; other examples are dismayed (from the Old French verb desmaier) and disparate (from the Latin disparatus). Others came across at various times already formed into pairs, such as mantle and dismantle which came from the equivalent French verbs in about 1400 and 1580 respectively. (The early literal sense of dismantle was to remove one’s cloak or mantle, and hence to undress; it was later applied figuratively to the process of stripping a fortress of its defences; all these meanings existed in French before the word came into English. Here, mantle has not vanished, though it is rarer than its opposite.) Similarly, consolate and disconsolate were introduced from Latin consolatus and disconsolatus, the former by Caxton in 1489, the latter half a century earlier.

The word couth was once common. It was a form of the Old English word cunnan, “well-known; familiar” (related to the modern German kennen). So uncouth meant “unknown; unfamiliar’. Over the years this developed in the spirit of that old Punch cartoon: “Who’s ’e? A stranger? ’Eave ’alf a brick at ’im!”, which encapsulated the notion that what was unfamiliar was also strange, foreign, suspect and unacceptable. The modern sense of “awkward and uncultured” only developed in the sixteenth century. The positive form couth went out of use later that century except in Scotland. It was re-introduced in 1896 by Max Beerbohm as a deliberate and humorous back-formation from uncouth but has never really become established again in mainstream English.

Another word in which a modern inverse has taken hold is disabled. This was formed in the sixteenth century from the verb disable, but the corresponding adjective abled seems not to have been used at that time. It was created by back-formation in the US in the early eighties by disabled people to refer to those not so affected and which became part of euphemistic phrases like differently abled. And the term disgruntled that started this exploration is actually not that old. It is first recorded as an adjective by the OED only in 1847, though its verb disgruntle had first appeared about 1680. That was the inversion of the even older verb gruntle which was a form of the verb grunt used for frequently-repeated action; both grunt and gruntle were used of people expressing a sound “as of discontent, dissent, effort or fatigue” and hence took on something of the sense of grumble (though the words are unrelated). Though the dis- prefix can often indicate a negative, here it acts to intensify the root word.

Another group of unpaired words are those ending in the negative suffix -less for which the corresponding antonym in -ful do not exist. Examples are ageless, countless, hapless (formed from the obsolete Old English term hap, “fortune; chance”), leafless, peerless (based on the old sense of peer as “one’s equal in standing or rank”), toothless and voiceless.

There are, of course, positive words for which no common negative form exists. Sometimes this is because an appropriate negative term already exists: bad is preferred to ungood unless you are of an Orwellian disposition or trying to be funny. Other examples with no direct negative forms are nice and fascinate. Some examples of words ending in -ful that have no forms in -less are awful, bashful and deceitful.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 23 Nov. 1996
Last updated: 16 Sep. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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This page URL: http://www.worldwidewords.org/articles/unpaired.htm
Last modified: 16 September 2000.