Episode 138: September 26, 2008
Grammar Girl here.
Today, guest writer Bonnie Trenga is going to tell us why we’re never “gruntled,” “sheveled,” or “in whack,” but why we are often “disgruntled,” “disheveled,” and “out of whack.”
Thanks to an interesting question from Glenn, we’ll be talking about words or phrases that have only a negative connotation; there is no opposite word with a positive connotation. These negative words might seem a bit wacky, but as in a recent podcast about irregular plurals, we’ll be looking back at the origins of English to discover why.
“Disgruntled” and “disheveled” both have the prefix “dis-,” which is one of the negative prefixes we commonly use today. Other negative prefixes are “non-,” “un,” and “in-” (which changes to “il-,” “im-,” and “ir-” before certain letters). You can also sometimes make something negative by putting “anti-” in front of it. These negative prefixes give words the connotation “not.” You simply add the prefix to the stem word to create a new word. You can add these prefixes to the beginning of nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs to make them negative. So you could take the stem word “honest” and add the prefix “dis-” to get “dishonest.” Likewise, take the stem word “happiness” and add the prefix “un-” to come up with “unhappiness.” You get the idea.
Many words starting with “dis-,” such as “disability,” “disapprove,” and “disagreeing,” have corresponding positive words: “ability,” “approve,” and “agreeing.” Others, such as “disgruntled,” have lost their stem words. We can no longer say, “gruntled” because that is not a word. I learned this by reading my dictionary, which honestly is fascinating reading. Don’t dis me because I read the dictionary! Anyway, I looked up a lot of “dis-” words, and therefore learned something about the past. According to my dictionary, the word “disgruntled,” meaning discontented, comes from a combination of the prefix “dis-” plus the word “gruntled,” a Middle English form of the word “gruntelen,” which is a form of the word “to grunt” (1). So apparently we used to be able to be gruntled, but nowadays we don’t grunt so much.
Another of Glenn’s questions was about the word “disheveled,” which means messy and often refers to hair or clothing. I learned the fascinating history of this word, too, by reading my dictionary. You probably wouldn’t guess that the French word for “hair” is at the root of this word (1). However, “disheveled” originates from the prefix “dis-” plus the word “chevel,” which means hair. Anyone who has studied French will remember that “hair” is “les cheveux.”
Other Interesting Origins of Negative Words
Let’s do one more “dis-” word and then we’ll distance ourselves from this prefix. “Disaster” has an interesting history, too. Unfortunately, we can’t say that something good was an “aster.” The word “disaster” comes from the prefix “dis-” plus the word “astro,” which of course means “star” (2). An obsolete meaning of the word “disaster,” according to my dictionary, is “an evil influence of a star or planet.”
You could probably spend hours poring through your dictionary learning the meanings of words that these days have only a negative connotation. If you want to have a bit of fun instead of working or studying, try looking up “nonchalant”; as I’m sure you’re aware, you won’t find “chalant” in the dictionary. (I’ll give you a hint: “chalant” is related to the French word “to heat.”) You might also have fun with “insipid,” with the “sipid” part somehow related to the Latin word “to taste.”
“Out of Whack”
Well, I could have spent hours looking at the dictionary, but it wasn’t much use when I faced Glenn’s last conundrum: the phrase “out of whack,” which means not functioning correctly. I had to go to the Internet to solve that mystery. I found an interesting site all about the English language, World Wide Words, hosted by Michael Quinion (3). The “out of whack” page, which was actually working quite well, explains that in the nineteenth century, “There seems to have been a phrase ‘in fine whack,’ meaning that something was in good condition or excellent fettle.” Apparently someone by the name of John Hay described President Lincoln by saying, “The Tycoon is in fine whack.” Although this is not a very common phrase, it’s easy to see how “out of whack” could be the opposite of “in fine whack.” You can read more wacky details about “out of whack” on Quinion’s site. You could also probably spend hours there learning about other odd phrases. For example, I learned what “bafflegab” is (4).
That’s about it for negative words that have no positive counterpart. Our language is filled with remnants of older forms of English. If you’re ever feeling disgruntled about anything, just nonchalantly distract yourself by reading your dictionary.