Word Matters Podcast

Uncommon Opposites

Word Matters, Episode 86

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We all know how to find opposites by removing prefixes: unhappy becomes happy; disagree becomes agree. Easy peasy. But some words resist prefix removal—or, at least they try.

Hosted by Emily Brewster, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski.

Produced in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Download the episode here.


Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, uncommon opposites. I'm Emily Brewster. And Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster, in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors, Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

Emily Brewster: We all know how to find opposites by removing prefixes. Unhappy becomes happy, disagree becomes agree, easy peasy, but some words resist prefix removal, or at least they try. I'll point out a few that don't succeed.

Gruntled is a word I grew up with. My dad used to use it, and actually he still uses the word gruntled. To be gruntled is to be happy, to be content. It is emphatically the opposite, and noticeably the opposite, of disgruntled. Disgruntled, of course, is the far more common word. But gruntled is a word that I grew up knowing. Now, I think that my dad probably didn't look it up in the dictionary. He was using gruntled, really, as a joke because disgruntled was the real word, and gruntled is just a contrasting term that should, of course, exist. I think it wasn't until I was working at Merriam-Webster that I looked it up and realized that gruntled is a real word. It's also a defined word. How familiar are you all with the word gruntled?

Ammon Shea: I think I always assumed it was a word, but that was assuming that out of ignorance when I was a child.

Emily Brewster: So it was used in your household too?

Ammon Shea: No, but I just presumed that if disgruntled was a word, that gruntled must also exist, even if it wasn't used.

Emily Brewster: It is a playful word, for sure. We define gruntled—our current earliest evidence of an in use is from about 1904—and we label it as informal and often humorous, which rings completely true. One of the fascinating things about the word disgruntled and gruntled is that there was an earlier gruntle before the gruntled of my childhood. The word disgruntled dates to the late 1600s. So quite a long time before the word gruntled in its current incarnation was being used. But the dis- in that word was an intensifying prefix. It was not the undoing prefix or the negating prefix that we know and love. It was this intensifying prefix. The original meaning of the word gruntle, the old gruntle, the now archaic gruntle meant "to grumble." So to disgruntle was to emphatically grumble. So if you were disgruntled, you were internally seething, [experiencing] intensified grumbling, I guess, is what originally the idea of being disgruntled would mean.

Ammon Shea: I always had this vague feeling that gruntled was a word, but I'm guessing that the first time I would've come across it in actual edited published prose was probably, as with many people, from Woodhouse. He uses it in The Code of the Woosters: "I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled." And that's exactly the humorous use that you're talking about. And so I'm sure that Woodhouse probably was not aware of the 16th century sense of gruntled that you're talking about.

Emily Brewster: Probably not. Now, it's interesting that there's also an example, much more recent, from the show The Office. A character says, "It was a crime of passion, Jan, not a disgruntled employee. Everyone here is extremely gruntled." Season three, episode 18, but still very much in keeping with the Woodhouse use.

Peter Sokolowski: It's strange that English has certain words that only seem to go in one direction, that we want logically to also apply to language. And yet, sometimes we have words like disconsolate or unkempt, and we really don't have their pairs. We don't have their opposites.

Emily Brewster: Well, we do have kempt, though.

Peter Sokolowski: Of course we do, but there's a disproportion in the usage and the frequency.

Emily Brewster: Right. Sometimes we impose them. And often, it is with this jokey sense to it.

Peter Sokolowski: And it shows that you pay attention to language.

Ammon Shea: What's interesting to me is that kempt is not often used, but we still are aware of it, as is the case with ruthless. Ruth is mercy. We know of it as a woman's name. And it comes up occasionally in its own right as a word, but you can see that it's starting to fade. In 200 years from now, people will be making similar jokes about he has ruth.

Emily Brewster: I think they're making those jokes now. Nobody uses the word ruth. People who think about language a lot, but it's not a common word.

Ammon Shea: I guess you're right.

Emily Brewster: As I was thinking about these kinds of words, I searched Twitter for the word couth because couth is another word that was used jokingly in my household growing up. The more familiar term is uncouth: "Don't be so uncouth, demonstrating such terrible manners." But couth is also used as a contrasting term to uncouth, but it also has a newer, as in 50, 60, 70 years old maybe, use as a noun. "Show some couth" means to show some awareness of propriety. And we define it that way. It's not a use in my everyday language.

Ammon Shea: I was familiar with it as in "exhibiting a lack of couth," perhaps.

Emily Brewster: Yes. And it is often used in phrase with the negative. That's right: "That person completely lacks couth."

Peter Sokolowski: So this is a word that's rising from the ashes, and finding its own way. In other words, a rebirth of an old word that had been largely negative in usage.

Emily Brewster: Maybe. I don't know how long it's been simmering in this use. These pairs, I think, are really interesting. Another one is flappable and unflappable. Those are both relatively new. Flappable dates to 1968, but unflappable is only 1954, according to the current research done so far. So flappable and unflappable are both pretty new, but unflappable is certainly the more commonly used word. That's a funny one, because why unflappable? "Having been flapped"?

Ammon Shea: It reminds me of unclubbable, which the OED defines it as "not suitable for membership of a club, owing to lack of sociability or desire to conform." I think clubbable just means "deserving or worthy of being clubbed." They're not actually functioning as antonyms there.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. I've always liked the word unclubbable. I associate it with Johnson.

Peter Sokolowski: Didn't he claim to claim that term?

Ammon Shea: He's not the earliest citation that I see. OED has got it from 1764, not from Johnson.

Emily Brewster: I think he accused someone of being unclubbable. A use him by is where I first encountered the word, I think.

Peter Sokolowski: It's funny, I associate the word with him also.

Ammon Shea: It feels like a Samuel Johnson word.

Peter Sokolowski: There's something about that club, being in the club, being part of the club, and also being part of a certain stratum of society, English upper class. That word comes with all of that wrapping. It's just an interesting thing that with these terms, we see very clearly that it's usage and not logic that determines where these words fall, and the usage is so specific in this case.

Emily Brewster: Right. Gentlemen's clubs. These societal clubs don't exist prominently enough, thank God, in our society anymore. The other word, unclubbable, is not a word that can really function in our modern society.

Ammon Shea: Emily, I was wondering about something. Are there other cases that you can think of where dis- as in disgruntled is used as an intensifier?

Emily Brewster: Not off the top of my head. I do wonder about its use in the word discombobulate. My understanding is that this intensifying prefix dis- is really archaic. There are not many words that it has contributed to in the English language. I'm not entirely sure of that, but that's what I'm remembering. Discombobulate, we say that its etymology is that it's probably from the word discompose.

Peter Sokolowski: Is that 20th century?

Ammon Shea: Discompose sounds earlier to me.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Discompose is 17th century. Discombobulate is late 19th century.

Peter Sokolowski: Interesting. And now of course we have recombobulate that you see in airports.

Emily Brewster: What??

Peter Sokolowski: Because you have to take yourself apart completely to go through security. Your coat is off. Your shoes are off. Your bag has to be repacked in some manner. And so there are completely serious printed signs that say "recombobulation area," which are usually a few benches or chairs or something after you go through security.

Emily Brewster: Wait a minute. Recombolulation signs?

Peter Sokolowski: Done without, as far as I can tell, any sense of jocular usage. Although, maybe some bureaucrats and airports do have a sense of humor.

Ammon Shea: Airport checking lines are famous for their jocularity, their senses of humor.

Peter Sokolowski: When I see it, makes me smile. Anyone who likes language would like a word like recombobulate. That's fun.

Emily Brewster: Recombobulate is brand new to me as of this conversation right now, and I am going to embrace it, and incorporate it into my family's lexicon. And someday, maybe my children will remark that they learned the word recombobulate from me. I'll credit you, Peter.

Ammon Shea: Peter, you should take a photo of that next time you come across it, and put it in the files.

Peter Sokolowski: I bet there are citations. We'll have to look for this because it's been around for a few years because that intense level of security in the last 20 years, since 9/11, of going through metal detectors and having to open your luggage and all the rest of it, and specially taking your shoes off, something that travelers are very familiar with now.

Emily Brewster: But I can't believe that they settled on recombobulate. Though what else are they going to say? "Put yourself together, man!"

Peter Sokolowski: It shows the disorder that is created. Discombobulate is more than undress or unbutton. It connotes real disorganization that you really need to get it back together.

Emily Brewster: Well, and now I'm wondering about bobulate. If you can recombobulate and you can discombobulate, clearly, you can combobulate. Can you also just bobulate? And what would that be? I'm actually very disappointed in our dictionary's insight into this. There's hardly anything here about it. It's very unhelpful.

Peter Sokolowski: Discombobulate?

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Just this "probably an alteration of discompose." I'm wanting more here. So maybe that's an article I need to research and write, what is going on with discombobulate?

Peter Sokolowski: It seems like there's a story there.

Emily Brewster: You are listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be right back with more opposites that mostly fly under the radar. Word Matters in is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Peter Sokolowski: Word Matters listeners get 25% off all dictionaries and books at shop.merrian-webster.com by using the promo code matters at checkout. That's matters, M-A-T-T-E-R-S at shop.merriam-webster.com

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day, a brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com, or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: In case you're still not quite gruntled yet, we've got more uncommon opposites.

Peter Sokolowski: There's a famous listing of these positive uses of typically negative, or at least shorter versions of words that we're familiar with as being longer, whether that's a prefix or a suffix, or in some cases, a short idiom that we always use in the negative, for example. And it's amazing the extent to which we don't notice them. That because the way we use them is so fixed. There was a humorous essay in The New Yorker, in 1994, by Jack Winter, called "How I Met My Wife." And I think it's famous among people who collect these things. And I'll just read the first couple of sentences. "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. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way."

Emily Brewster: That is fantastic.

Peter Sokolowski: Someone really had probably collected these. And once you get to a critical mass of 50 or 60 of them, made a beautiful use of them. And if you put it in narrative form, it's one of those joys of language. Isn't it? That we laugh for no particular reason. If you were a learner of English, even a pretty good learner of English, a fluent English speaker, a lot of this might seem very strange to you. You might not understand exactly what's so funny about gainly to describe the way a person moves because it's plausible. And yet, of course, it's very infrequent.

Emily Brewster: The reason that this is funny is because it's unexpected, not because it's illogical, not because the language can't bear this. It's that these words are not usually found in these forms.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely. In some ways, this is a formal beauty to this version of humor, of using words almost just as words. But when we ask them to carry some meaning and we impose that meaning on them, then, all of a sudden, we realize, oh, I always see gainly as ungainly. I always encounter consolate as disconsolate, or sheveled as disheveled. So I'll read two more sentences from this. "Fortunately, the embarrassment that my maculate appearance might cause was evitable. There were two ways about it, but the chances that someone as flappable as I would be ept enough to become persona grata or a sung hero were so slim. I was, after all, something to sneeze at, someone you could easily hold a candle to, someone who usually aroused bridled passion."

Ammon Shea: I always thought of humor as being based on laughing at the misfortune of others, but it turns out humor can be based on the lexical infrequency expectation.

Peter Sokolowski: Henri Bergson, the French philosopher, tried to distill what humor was. And I think he finally settled on humor is some combination of the living or moving, and the unmoving, something that is immovable and unchangeable that encounters something that is changeable and moveable. So in this case, the unchangeable thing would be the idiom that we know. And then, if you change it, if you twist it, and take the un- out of ungainly, or the dis- out of disheveled, we all laugh.

Emily Brewster: Right. I think that shevelled is another word that was used in my household growing up, shevelled, but I had not thought about a person being described as "descript," as opposed to "nondescript." I really like that one. "A descript woman."

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. That's the thing, is the extent to which these are hiding in plain sight, and there are so many of them. And it's the thing that I struggle with. Maybe you do too. You can think, "There must be dozens of examples of these." And then you sit and think about it, and it's hard to come up with them. And that's why we have to write them down. You have to take notes about this kind of thing because it's not as obvious.

Peter Sokolowski: John Cleese said that in Monty Python, when they had a bit about nonsense language, and it's a famous skit because the language that they speak is completely plausible. It sounds like flowing English. And he said, "We could not come up with that. We literally had to write down lists of words, and we took the beginnings of one word, and added them to the end of another word, and we simply memorized that." Because our brains are so hardwired, by the time we become fluent speakers of a language, to follow one sound with another, that when you interrupt that, you create automatic humor. You automatically laugh because it's ridiculous, but it requires a lot of attention and study to do it.

Ammon Shea: Speaking of the definition of comedy, Mel Brooks, I think, said tragedy is when I cut my finger, and comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die. I always like to try to apply that to language.

Emily Brewster: I like Peter's version better.

Ammon Shea: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts, or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org. And for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci. For Ammon Shea and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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