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English words used only (or almost only) in the negative

There are a number of odd words in our language, which are used only (or almost only) with a negative prefix. A few examples would be unkempt, disheveled and disgruntled (which will be discussed at greater length below). You’d very rarely hear kempt, and you’ll never encounter “heveled,” or “sheveled,” or “gruntled” at all.

I am also including in this category word pairs where the meaning of the word with a negative prefix has nothing to do with its meaning without the prefix. An example would be the verbs to disconcert and to concert. Since the meaning of to concert isn’t related to disconcert, the “concert” of disconcert actually doesn’t exist. And therefore, disconcert is used only in the negative. (See more discussion below).

You might be tempted to think that such words are common, but you’d be very mistaken. If you simply look through your dictionary you’ll find that for almost every negative word you can remove the negative prefix un-, im-, dis-, ill-, il-, anti- or in-, and the remaining word makes very good sense as a positive word. For example:

unabashed, unable, unabridged, unabsorbed, unacademic, unaccented, unacceptable, unaccompanied, unbearable, unbecoming, unbeliever, etc.

immature, immobile, immodest, immoral, immortal, immovable, etc.

illogical, illiterate, illegitimate, illiberal, illicit, illegible, etc.

anticlimax, anticommunist, anticonvulsant, antidepressant, anticlerical, anticoagulant, antifreeze, antihistamine, etc.

You’ll find, as I did, that the words that don’t make sense without their prefix are few and far between.



A word used only with the negative prefixes un- or ill-

kempt
The adjective kempt is a word used only in the negative in the words ill-kempt or unkempt.

Historical Note: Kempt meant well combed or neat and comes from the past participle of kemb an Old English form of “to comb” of Germanic origin.

The word kemb died out after the 1400’s and kempt is rarely seen in works after 1500, except as a humorous backformation from unkempt, but we still use the negative form unkempt or ill-kempt which refer to a person or room. It means that he, she or it is disheveled or untidy. Here’s an example:

He hadn’t slept well and looked unkempt.

Postscript Note: I wrote above that “kempt is rarely seen in works after 1500, except as a humorous backformation…” Well, some time after first publishing this book I came across one of those rare uses of kempt that I referred to above. In a detective story by Elizabeth George, in referring to a woman who had been out in a rowboat fishing, she says “…and her hair was managing to look perfectly kempt despite the fact that she’d been out on the water.”


Words only used with the negative prefix dis-

The prefix “dis-“ is a common means of indicating the negative or the opposite of a word. For an obvious example, think of appear and disappear, where appear means to come into sight or become visible, and disappear means to cease being visible, to vanish from sight.

There are many more words like this. Consider advantage and disadvantage, affection and disaffection, accord and disaccord, agree and disagree, allow and disallow, arm and disarm, assemble and disassemble. And that’s just some words starting with “a”! There are also honest and dishonest, obey and disobey, and many more all through the alphabet.

However there are some words where we use the form with the “dis“ prefix but we don’t use the positive form of the word, either because it has become obsolete, or because it didn’t get adopted into English when the “dis“ form did. (This adoption was usually from French, for “dis“ words). Let’s consider a few:


gusted
Disgusted and the verb to disgust are good examples of words from French in which only the negative got adopted into English. They come from the Old French verb gouster, meaning to taste. In Old French gouster took a prefix des- (meaning the opposite or the negative of) and became desgouster and meant to have a strong distaste or repugnance for.

The noun disgust came into English in the late 1500’s from desgoust. The verb to disgust came shortly after from desgouster.

At first the subject was the person who had the feeling, and the unpleasant thing was the object. This is confusing so I’ll paraphrase an example from my etymology dictionary. It’s from the 1660’s:

It had a bad taste, which made him disgust it. (Have a strong dislike for it).

It was later that the subject and object got switched around and “it” disgusted “him” rather than “him” disgusting “it” as in the example above. We’d now say:

It had a bad taste, and it disgusted him.

Gusted is never used without the prefix dis- in front of it.


Side Note about French: As with many French words, in modern French gouster lost its “s” and added a circumflex. This turned it into goûter (to taste). In a similar way, desgouster became dégoûter, to disgust.

Historical Side Note: The positive word, the French gouster, to taste, never made it to English either as a verb or a noun. The English word taste comes from an older French word taster.

Back in the 12th century in French taster meant to touch or feel. It wasn’t until a century later that taster added a second meaning, to taste. It came into English with that sense in the late 1300’s.

In Modern French, taster has also dropped the “s” and taken a circumflex, and is now tâter. It no longer has its secondary meaning of tasting but has kept the older sense of touching, and now means to learn about something by touching and feeling it. For example:

Dans le brouillard j’ai avancé en tâtant le mur. (In the fog I advanced by feeling along the wall).

Il tâtait les poires. (He was feeling the pears (to see if they were ripe)).


gruntled
The adjective gruntled is a word used only in the negative in the word disgruntled, or so it would appear.

Actually though, disgruntled comes from the verb to gruntle in the 1400’s, and to gruntle meant to utter little or low grunts.

By the late 1600’s gruntle had come to mean to grumble, and the prefix dis- at that time was used, not only as a negative as it is now, but as an intensifier of an unpleasant state or action, meaning something like very or completely. Thus disgruntled meant grumbling a lot, therefore very dissatisfied and not content. To disgruntle can also be a verb, meaning to dissatisfy or to make unhappy.

He was very disgruntled about the inaction of Congress.

Don’t disgruntle him any more than necessary.

Note: Gruntled is now obsolete except as a humorous back formation from disgruntle, in which case it means content or satisfied.


sheveled
The adjective disheveled means having one’s hair or clothes all messed up and out of order. But, of course, there is no word “sheveled” or “heveled” meaning that one’s hair or clothing is in order and neat.

Historical Side Note: Disheveled came from the late 1300’s Old French adjective deschevelé. The word deschevelé became déchevelé by the 1700’s, and it was as déchevelé that it was found in 1762 in the 4th edition of the Dictionary of the Académie française.

Déchevelé came from the stem French word cheveux, which means hair. Thus déchevelé meant with hair or hairdo disarranged. A verb, décheveler, was back-formed from the adjective and meant to mess up the hair or hairdo of someone.

Déchevelé and décheveler have become obsolete in French and are no longer in my French dictionary, but disheveled lives on in English.


concerting
Since the adjective disconcerting means disturbing the composure of someone, making them feel unsettled, making them hesitate in what they are doing, or making them doubt the correctness of their course of action, concerting should mean helping the composure of someone, making them surer in their action.

However there is no adjective “concerting” with that meaning, or any verb “to concert” that means the opposite of to disconcert.

There is a rare and literary or formal verb, to concert, but it means something else entirely: to act or work together by mutual agreement or in coordination. In other words, to work “in concert.” To concert, therefore, has nothing to do with the current meaning of to disconcert.

Historical Side Note: There is a French verb concerter from the 1400’s whose primary meaning is to work together on a project. Undoubtedly the formal English verb, to concert, came from this.

The verb to disconcert entered English in the late 1600’s from the French verb desconcerter, meaning to block the completion of a project or action.

In Modern French desconcerter has changed to déconcerter, and the meaning above has become obsolete or literary. The current meaning is the same as the current meaning in English, to disturb the countenance of someone, to throw them into incertitude about what to do.


semble
The verb to dissemble means to disguise your feelings or beliefs. It entered English in the 1400’s from the Middle French dessembler.

This makes sense if you realize that the French verb sembler means to appear as if, to seem. The prefix des- is a negative prefix in French, and thus dessembler meant to not seem or not appear as it really is.

However the French verb sembler didn’t make it into English, so while you could remove the negative prefix des- from dessembler in French and it would make sense, in English you can’t remove the negative prefix dis- from dissemble, as there is no word “semble” in English.


combobulate
The verb to discombobulate is a humorous word chiefly used in The United States, but it’s a genuine English word dating from the 1800’s nonetheless. You’ll find it in any English dictionary.

To discombobulate means to throw someone into a state of confusion, to perplex them, to cause them to be unable to think clearly. It’s thought to perhaps be an alteration of discompose or discomfit, but those are really just guesses as far as I can tell. Here’s an example of its use:

The guests arriving an hour early for dinner completely discombobulated me.

You’d think that to “combobulate” someone should mean to clarify things for someone, to help them think clearly, but there is no word “combobulate” at all.


comfit
The verb to discomfit someone means to make the person uneasy, uncomfortable (emotionally), or disconcerted. It has a second definition of undoing or thwarting the person’s plans.

There is an earlier meaning which is now obsolete. To discomfit someone used to mean to vanquish them, to defeat them in battle, to rout them.

In the 1828 Webster’s this earlier, now obsolete meaning was the only one given. There was no mention of either of the current definitions. Here’s the definition that was given in 1828:

“To rout; to defeat; to scatter in fight; to cause to flee; to vanquish.”

In the 1913 Webster’s, this was still the first definition:

“To scatter in fight; to put to rout; to defeat.”

However, in 1913 a second definition was given which included both of the current meanings of the word:

“To break up and frustrate the plans of; to balk to throw into perplexity and dejection; to disconcert.”

It’s thought that perhaps to discomfit took this new meaning by confusion with the word to discomfort.

Logically speaking to comfit someone should mean the opposite of to discomfit them. In other words to make them comfortable. However “comfit” is never used by all by itself without the negative dis- prefix. It thus is one of the words used only in the negative.

Note: Interestingly, discomfit first came into English around 1200 as an adjective, from the Old French desconfit, with the meaning to defeated or vanquished:

The enemy was discomfit.

Only later did it begin to be used as a verb (to discomfit).

The French desconfit was the past participle of desconfire which was made up of the prefix des- meaning not and the verb confire meaning to make, prepare or accomplish. Confire itself came from a Latin word meaning to prepare.

Confire is still listed in my French dictionary, although it’s listed as a word which has become obsolete. Desconfit and desconfire have disappeared.


figure
There is a verb to figure that is commonly used in English, but this figure is never the opposite of to disfigure. That figure (the opposite of disfigure) doesn’t exist in English.

To exist it would have to mean to improve the appearance as to disfigure means to mar or spoil the appearance of (something or someone). It came in the 14th century from the Old French verb desfigurer. By the way, like so many French words, in Modern French desfigurer has lost its “s” and taken an accent, so that it is now défigurer.

While in the Fine Arts, in French, the noun la figure can refer to the entire body as it does in English, in common French usage la figure refers to the face, so you can see how desfigure or disfigure logically meant to mar the appearance.


appoint
As with figure, there is a verb to appoint that is commonly used in English, but this appoint is never the opposite of to disappoint.

Actually to disappoint used to mean to undo or cancel the appointment of someone. It gradually evolved over the years to its current meaning which is to fail to satisfy the hopes of someone, or to frustrate their desires or wishes.

To appoint kept its original meaning and has never meant the opposite of the current meaning of to disappoint.

The verb disappoint came from the Middle French desappointer in the 14th century. (You’ve probably noticed by now that at least half of our language comes from French or is French).


Saul
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