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Wordplay with George Grant: A closer look at “lonely negatives”


WORLD Radio - Wordplay with George Grant: A closer look at “lonely negatives”

Commentator George Grant says some words and their opposites can be "discombobulating"

Title page of Noah Webster's 1828 edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language. Book owned by the California State Library. Photo by Jim Heaphy via Wikimedia commons.

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Friday, May 19th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Up next: antonyms. Sometimes it’s easy to name a word and its opposite: obey, disobey. Pleasure, displeasure. But some English words don’t pair with an opposite quite so easily. Here’s WORLD Commentator George Grant with Word Play for the month of May.

GEORGE GRANT, COMMENTATOR: According to journalist Donna Dickens, “the English language defies logic.” In fact, she says, “it is most illogical and discombobulating.” But, if it were logical, would it then be combobulating? Well, no. There is no such word as combobulating! And that is indeed quite illogical and discombobulating.

The opposite of disgusted is not gusted; the opposite of disheveled is not sheveled; the opposite of disappointment is not appointment.

There are many negative English words whose positive forms either do not exist at all, are now obscure and obsolete, or have changed meaning altogether. Grammarians call these words lonely negatives or unpaired words.

The word disgusted comes from the Norman French, derived from the Latin prefix dis, “expressing reversal,” and gustāre meaning “to taste.” But only the negative form passed into English, so no one has ever declared, “That gusted me.”

Disheveled comes from the late Middle English word, dishevely, derived from the Old French past participle of descheveler and taken from the root word cheveux, meaning “hair.” Originally it described “having the head uncovered.” Later it referred to the hair itself, untidily hanging loose. Again though, the positive form never made it into English, so no one has ever been sheveled.

Prior to the sixteenth century disappointment was removal from an office, dispossession from a property, or negation of an appointment. It meant “to cancel or to revoke privileges.” Only much later did it come to mean “to frustrate, upset, dishearten, or dissatisfy.”

There is no reckful to serve as a positive counterpart to reckless. There is no delible to oppose indelible, no cessant to stand up to incessant, no nocuous to contrast with innocuous, no dolent to counter indolent.

A handful of lonely negatives are not actually negative. For instance, the prefix dis in disgruntled is an intensifier not a nullifier or negator. If you’re disgruntled would that mean that you’re extremely gruntled? In his comic classic, The Code of the Woosters, P.G. Wodehouse made humorous use of that lonely negative declaring, “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.”

What a great sentence! It is almost enough to make one yearn for just a bit more English combobulating.

I’m George Grant.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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