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Disgruntled and gruntled

Q From John Carlson: I have, for some time, been fascinated by the word disgruntled. How may you be disgruntled if you are not already gruntled? I do not know what gruntled is and I have not been able to find that word in the dictionaries that I have examined. Any thoughts about gruntled and disgruntled?

A Years ago I wrote a piece about such unpaired opposites, whose first example was this word. It quoted P G Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters, published in 1938: “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.” So, if you were the opposite of disgruntled you would be pleased, satisfied, and contented.

Wodehouse invented this sense and has been quoted or flatteringly imitated many times since (as in Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett: “‘No, that man,’ said Angua, ‘[with a] face like someone very disgruntled.’ ‘Oh, that was Captain Vimes. But he’s never been gruntled, I think.’”)

The assumption behind it is that putting dis- on the front of a word makes it negative in meaning in some way, as in disappear, discontent, disconnect, dishonest, and dozens of others. That’s still an active way of making new words — it has been used in recent decades to create disinformation, disambiguate and many others. Sometimes, however — very rarely and only in old words — dis- is what the grammarians call an intensifier: it makes an existing sense stronger. For example, the unusual word disannul was used in the sense “to make null and void, bring to nothing, abolish” and dissever means “to divide, separate, disjoin”. A third example is disgruntle, which at root suggests somebody is more than merely gruntled. But gruntled here doesn’t have its Wodehousian sense, quite the reverse.

Now a second grammatical term, frequentative (or frequentive if you prefer). This is a trick of word formation, now obsolete, in which an ending created a verb to suggest that some action is often repeated. The one used for this most often is -le. So curdle is the frequentative of curd, gamble that of game and sparkle of spark. The verb gruntle is the frequentative of grunt.

The first sense of gruntle was of a repeated grunt, especially the noise that pigs make in company. An example is in The Life and Death of Mr Badman, by John Bunyan, of 1680: “After this his speech went quite away, and he could speak no more than a Swine or a Bear. Therefore, like one of them, he would gruntle and make an ugly noise, according as he was offended, or pleased, or would have any thing done.” It is rarely used of humans, but an example occurs in a 1922 book, The Covered Wagon, by Emerson Hough, “They dismounted. The two Indians, short, deep-chested, bow-legged men, went to the packs. They gruntled as they unloaded the two larger mules.” Gruntle appeared in the fifteenth century; by the end of the next century it had begun to be used to mean grumbling or complaining. I imagine it as old-retainer mumble, the noise that someone fed up with their condition will make under their breath all the time.

If we put the intensifier and the frequentative together in one word, disgruntled has its current meaning, which the Oxford English Dictionary describes as a state of “moody discontent, sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humour”.

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Page created 16 Dec 2006