'Disheveled,' 'Disgruntled': Why Are Some Words Only Used in Negative Form?

By: Kristen Hall-Geisler  | 

dictionary
Many words in the dictionary that would seem to have an opposite, don't actually have one. beemore/Getty Images

It's probably crossed your mind at some point when you hear a word like, say, "disgruntled." You might ask yourself, "Has anyone ever been gruntled? Is it even possible to be gruntled?"

Words like this, that are only used in the negative and never the positive, are sometimes informally called "lonely negatives" or "unpaired words." They're common words, like "incessant," "disheveled," "ineffable" and "unraveled." There are plenty of them in modern English. But are they really lonely because they've lost a positive mate? Or are they merely solitary words, doing an adequate job on their own without needing an opposite to prop them up? First, let's look at what makes these words negative before we find out if they're lonely.

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Word Creation and Recreation

Many words in English are "multimorphemic," says Dr. Jenny Lederer, an associate professor of linguistics at San Francisco State University. "Multi" means "many," and "morpheme" means "a linguistic unit." Multimorphemic words can be created by simply adding an –"s" to a word to make it plural (so, "cat" becomes "cats.") Or they can be created by adding a negative prefix morpheme, such as "un-," to a morpheme such as "happy" to get its opposite: "unhappy."

We form new words this way all the time, according to Lederer. "A derivational prefix changes the meaning of the root word," she says. Say you searched for something on the internet and you want to look up the same thing again. It's easy enough in English to add the prefix "re-," which means "again," to the verb "Google," which is itself a newish word. It's very possible to say you're going to "re-Google" something, and the person you're talking to would understand even if they'd never heard the word before.

"We're in a hyper-accelerated period of word creation," Lederer says. "Even our spelling is changing." She notes that other languages have even more derivational morphologies (a very fun phrase to say) than English, with more ways to change the meanings of words by adding multiple prefixes and suffixes to the root word.

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Where the Words Come From

Now that we know how these negative words are formed, we can look at how we got them. Many of these lonely negatives came to English through French via Latin.

Take a word like "ineffable," which describes something "too great for words," according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It was directly borrowed into English from French in the Middle Ages. It was the exact same word, no changes in spelling, though it was pronounced with a French flair. France acquired it from Latin, ineffabilis, which meant "unutterable."

The first known use of this word was in 1450: "Oh godde of hiegh pitee inmense and ineffable." ("Oh God of high pity, immense and ineffable.") It arrived in English complete with the prefix and the full meaning. Lederer says that words like this come into the language "already glued into place, and there's no incentive to take off the negative prefix." It filled a hole in the English language as it was, and we didn't need "effable" as its opposite.

Not that people didn't try. The first known use of "effable" was in 1668, so more than 200 years after "ineffable" was in use. In the United States, "ineffable" had a bit of a heyday in the 1870s, but "effable" was only used in two different publications around 1980.

"The positive could have dropped out because there were much more frequent synonyms in use," Lederer says. In other words, we have lots of ways to describe something that is describable. What we didn't have was a word for something too big for words, and the French had a word ready for the borrowing.

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'Disheveled': Is There a 'Heveled'?

Not only do we invent new words thanks to morphemes, but we also change the meanings of words over time. This is called "semantic drift," and it has led to some of these lonely negatives not having positives.

"The negative or positive might have drifted away from its original usage," Lederer says. "The negative could have drifted in a particular context and so it's no longer directly oppositional to the positive."

This is the case for a word like "disheveled," which means "being in loose disorder or disarray," according to Merriam-Webster. It too comes to English from French, where the negative prefix "dis-" was added to chevoil, which meant "hair." For a long time, it did refer just to the state of one's hair or hat. In 1405, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote, "Dischevelee, save his cappe, he rood al bare." ("With hair unbound, save for his cap, he rode all bare-headed.")

Having unbound hair and only a cap rather than a proper hat was very casual in Chaucer's day, the equivalent of wearing your jammies on an airplane. In the 600 years since he wrote "The Canterbury Tales," the word has drifted away from its original English meaning to refer to a person's whole state, not just their head. Messy clothes, makeup, hair – any of it adds up to being disheveled today. There's no "cheveled" or "heveled" because that would only mean having hair. English didn't need that word like it apparently needed "disheveled."

"So many new objects and activities come into our lives as culture evolves, we have to have new words" Lederer says. "They are often based on old words using compounds, blends or derivations. Without them, we'd be talking like Shakespeare."

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So, What About 'Disgruntled'?

Let's bring this back around to our earlier question: Is it possible to be gruntled? The answer is not really.

"Disgruntle" was first used in 1682. "Gruntle" comes from Middle English — "grunt" with the ending "le," which acts as a diminutive. Put it together, and you get basically "little grunting sound." And that's what gruntle meant when it was first used as early as 1400, usually when writing about pigs or people sounding like pigs.

It wasn't until 1591 that "gruntle" was used to mean "complain." So, originally, "gruntle" was not a positive word — or a negative one. In 1682, "disgruntled" pops up for the first time meaning "ill-humored" or "disgusted." And it didn't really take off in popularity until the 21st century.

And finally, the question that started it all: Are these words really lonely negatives? Nope. "It's not a technical term," Lederer says. "There may not be a term for these words."

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