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We can be thoughtful or thoughtless, careful or careless, mindful and mindless. Why not ruthful and gormful? Why not the qualities of ruthiness, gormliness and doleliness?
Can we be kempt or just unkempt? Couth or just uncouth? Gruntled or just disgruntled? Shevelled or just dishevelled?* Maculate or just immaculate? Domitable, or just indomitable? Ruly or just unruly? Can we come ravelled instead of just unravelled? Can we member a corpse instead of just dismember it? Can a Wikipedia entry be an ambiguation rather than a title=”Wikipedia” href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Disambiguation” target=”_blank”>disambiguation?
If we’re not disappointed are we appointed? If not distressed are we tressed? If not discombobulated are we combobulated? If not nonplussed, are we plussed? If we’re not impeccable, are we just peccable? Can we be chalant rather than nonchalant? If we don’t want to dismantle something, can we mantle it? If we don’t disfigure a painting, do we figure it? If it’s not inevitable, is it evitable? If an event doesn’t unnerve us, is it nerving? If it’s not defunct is it funct? If an online hoax isn’t debunked, can it be bunked instead?
Can we be placcable, effable, trepid, ert, ane and feckful? can I rupt the proceedings? Can any love be requited? Can any heroes be sung? If I don’t dismiss you, do I miss you? If you stop your incessant chatter, does it become cessant? If I’m not an imbecile in your eyes, am I a becile? Can a tool be wieldy?
Some of these odd-seeming words have been in our language, just fallen out of favour or replaced by other terms. Ruthful, the Word Detective tells us, was in common use in the 12th until the 14th century, although it hung around as an anachronism until the 19th century.** Ruly was coined around 1400 CE, according to World Wide Words. Tools could never be wieldy, but persons could be, in the sense of being nimble (same source).
Hap is (according to David Crystal in his book, Stories of English), one of the few Scandinavian words that survived in English from the Norse invasions of the British isles, before the first millennium (curiously, the third person pronouns, them, their and they are also among the remaining survivors).
Hap meant luck or fortune. It appears as the root of many English words, according to the English Exchange:
- happy of course, since good luck brings happiness. This is common in various languages: for instance in German, “glücklich” means both happy and fortunate.
- perhaps: by any chance. There used to be also mayhaps, now archaic.
- to happen, here good luck is closer to the more neutral sense of chance.
- haphazard, which has a connotation of risk because you leave something to chance.
- a mishap, an unlucky accident.
- more recently coined words are happenstance (from happening + circumstance) or happenchance.
I’m not used to mayhap written as mayhaps. As the Grammarphobia Blog points out, mayhap means “it may hap…” or it may come about by chance. Mayhaps seems to be a conflation of mayhap and perhaps. Like when people mistakenly say “irregardless” when they mean “regardless,” conflating the latter with the prefix “ir” as in irresponsible.
What exactly happened to ruth, dole and hap, anyway? Did the other half of themselves disappear, fade away from lack of use? Certainly in the case of ruthful, it did. But most seem to have been coined solitary, antonym-less, with no matching opposite form.
Blogger Edward Genochio talks about the absent antonyms, giving a list of some of these unpaired words – some of which have had antonyms in the past – including:
- Infinity (finite, the adjective, is common enough, but I have never seen the presumed abstract noun finity, which ought, were it to exist, to convey the concept of boundedness).
- Unthinkable (thinkable is very rarely found, and then usually in a negative construction such as barely thinkable).
I am a tad surprised he is unfamiliar with perturbed, which he calls “odd-looking.” It is a word I use frequently. There’s a similar list from Reddit:
Actually, the list is wrong about a few of them: stinting is a common word, as the Merriam Webster dictionary site tells us. It means “giving or sharing as little as possible.”
Beknownst, while not a proper word, has been used as a back-formation neologism and many examples are online.
Gainly may be dialectical (coined around 1300 CE), but it is the pair with ungainly, though seldom used. Souciant is French, meaning worrying. The antonym for inhibited is uninhibited, although it looks like it should be “hibited.” Like the opposite of inflammable is uninflammable (or more properly nonflammable). And there is a word “ordinate” which derives from the same Latin root for order as inordinate, but has taken on a meaning relating to mathematics rather than behaviour or appearance.
Here’s a wonderful poem I found, called A Very Descript Man, that captures this linguistic conundrum beautifully. It was on Phrases.org and is attributed to J. H. Parker:
I am such a dolent man,
I eptly work each day;
My acts are all becilic,
I’ve just ane things to say.
My nerves are strung, my hair is kempt,
I’m gusting and I’m span:
I look with dain on everyone
And am a pudent man.
I travel cognito and make
A delible impression:
I overcome a slight chalance,
With gruntled self-possesion.
My, dignation would be great
If I should digent be:
I trust my vagance will bring
An astrous life for me.
Incognito comes from the Latin verb, cogitare – to know. Cognito is the perfect participle (Caesaris adventu cognito – When the arrival of Caesar had become known…). It again is a back-formation neologism you can find in use online.
Some of these words above look like they can be deconstructed into discrete parts, but they really can’t: one or more part has no meaning outside from the whole word. It may never have, or the meaning has been lost. Take a gander at this blog post about cranberry morphemes. Also called cranberry morphs, these are parts of words that look like they should be able to stand alone, but cannot, like the “ceive” in perceive, “twi” in twilight and “cran” in cranberry.
This site describes it as a “a bound morpheme that has no independent meaning or grammatical function. That is, it cannot stand on its own (bound), and by itself, it doesn’t mean or do anything.”
English is really a lot of fun, despite its apparent contrariness.
* Shevelled is a recent neologism according to this site but says it hasn’t caught on. However, I recall it being used sardonically as far back as the late 1960s and early 70s. In the same vein, we used peccable, kempt and ruly.
** Ruth in ruthless has nothing to do with the Biblical Ruth. It comes from a Middle English word reuthe (or sometimes ruthe) meaning pity or compassion.
- 148 words
- 994 characters
- Reading time: 48 s
- Speaking time: 74s