From 'nonchalant' to 'unwieldy', did you know these 'unpaired' words?

These terms, on the surface, appear to have a clear counterpart — an antonym — according to conventional English language patterns, and yet don’t

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 28 Dec 2023, 9:09 PM

“I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.” So wrote the immortal humorist P.G. Wodehouse in his brilliant novel The Code of the Woosters. Wodehouse, as a stylist, revelled in breaking the canons of the English language, and in this sentence he had done just that. He had poked fun at an unpaired word.

“Unpaired words” are those that, on the surface, appear to have a clear counterpart — an antonym — according to conventional English language patterns, and yet don’t. What’s peculiar about them is their prefixes and suffixes suggest the presence of a related opposite word, which, however, doesn’t exist. Such words often emerge because the corresponding opposite term has become obsolete or might never have existed in the first place.

For instance, while you can describe someone as “nonchalant”, you can’t call his opposite “chalant”, since that word doesn’t exist — just as, when you’re writing about someone who is “dishevelled”, it might seem logical that there should be a neat and well-groomed counterpart who is “shevelled” — and there isn’t. Similarly, you can be “dismayed”, but there’s no counterpart of being “mayed”. Something can be “unwieldy”, but it’s opposite isn’t “wieldy”. These are unpaired words, of a specific type known as “orphaned negatives”. An orphaned negative features a prefix or suffix, which gives the misleading impression that removing it would result in a word denoting the opposite.

Is it even possible to “bunk” a rumour before debunking it? The short answer is “no”. People can be reckless, but what exactly might it imply to be “reck”? Interestingly, “reck” existed once — as an archaic English term that denoted “care” or “thoughtfulness”. This word has its roots in Old English, where “reccan” means “to take care of” or “to exhibit interest in”. Therefore, when someone is described as “reckless”, it implies they are acting without due regard for safety or caring about consequences.

“Unkempt” has its origins dating back to the 14th century, and “kempt” appears to have arisen as a result of a process known as backformation, where the prefix “un-” was removed to create its opposite meaning. An alternative account suggests that “kempt” did exist but fell out of usage in the 1500s, only to re-emerge after a lapse of four centuries. So as a smartly-dressed person, you can be kempt, but not shevelled!

While we commonly declare we’re “overwhelmed” or (more recently) “underwhelmed”, it’s rare to hear someone claim to be “whelmed”. The term “whelm”, derived from the Old English word “hwielfan”, initially conveyed the idea of “cover over”, “overthrow”, or “submerge completely”, particularly in the context of ships facing rough waters. Consequently, “whelm” formerly held a synonymous meaning to “overwhelm”, with “over” serving as a redundant intensifier.

The term “incorrigible” describes an individual who is resistant to correction and cannot, therefore, be changed or reformed. Consequently, “corrigible” signifies something that is amenable to correction or improvement. Unlike its counterpart, “corrigible” is typically applied to inanimate objects rather than individuals. Interestingly, “corrigible’ emerged in the 15th century, approximately a century after its opposite term, “incorrigible”. The reason for its lack of popularity remains a mystery.

Of course you can emerge “unscathed” from all this linguistic exegesis. The base word for “unscathed” is “scathe”, which originates from an Old Norse word meaning to “to cause harm” or “inflict injury”. Consequently, an individual described as “unscathed” remains untouched or uninjured. But a person who is hurt or injured is never referred to as “scathed”. The base word survives in English usage only in the form of “scathing”, meaning “very critical”, as in a negative opinion or a “scathing review”.

Back to P.G. Wodehouse, then: the Master probably knew that his joke worked because “gruntled” wasn’t really an antonym of “disgruntled”. But “gruntle” was indeed a valid word, and interestingly, it meant to express discontent by grumbling or complaining, or the act of emitting small grunts. It’s a unique case where the prefix “dis-” serves as an intensifier, contrary to its more common role of negating or reversing the meaning of the word to which it is affixed. A disgruntled person is actually more intensely gruntled!

So when we employ unpaired words, let’s mourn their dis(mayed) companions, languishing un(scathed) on the linguistic margins!

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