A word with no commonly-used positive form

"...[one of] the many words in English which are the negatives of words whose positive forms are now obsolete or rare"
  Michael Quinion, World Wide Words

I blame my father. He started it. "Why is there no word 'couth'?", he'd ask. "I consider myself a couth person". And so it began. My mother picked up the mantle (so to speak), and would occasionally venture another of these apparently misbegotten words, although I never had a label for them until recently, when I read Lometa's writeup "feckless", and she used the term orphan negative. A short googling turned up a few more, and I thought I'd venture into the area of English marked on the linguistic map as "Here Be Dragons", in order to become more ept. Um, less inept.

Sure enough, there are dozens of these puppies, of which uncouth is possibly one of the best known. Michael Quinion of World Wide Words calls them "unpaired negatives", and points out that all too often, the original word has simply fallen out of favour. He cites unkempt as an example. Do we ever describe anyone as "kempt"? Well, no, though there is still some use of "well kempt", though the last time I heard it, it was in connection with gardening. But it was in common, everyday use at one time, coming from an Old English word meaning simply "combed". So why did the negative remain, whilst the original fell into decline? To answer that you'd need to ask a specialist, a language historian. Times like this I am saddened that Gritchka left us, he'd have written this from memory.

Doubtless you can come up with dozens of examples of these poor orphaned words, with origins lost to most of us through neglect or the vagaries of language fashion. Some are quite common, and we rarely question their lost, positive origins, others are rarer - whoever needs to use the word "ineluctable" these days? But the word "eluctate" was in use during the 17th century, but is largely lost to us in this 21st. We are oft disgruntled, but "gruntled"? Rarely, and then only in jocular mode. I listed a few apparent orphans, with their origins, just for kicks. Not all of them are true orphans, as the estimable Clockmaker has pointed out. But I left 'em in because, well it's my writeup.

  • unruly - from "ruly" a word used around 1400, from the word rule (as in rule of law) It meant that one was law-abiding, disciplined, orderly, the opposite of a scofflaw.
  • unscathed - "scathe" is formed from a Scandinavian word meaning injury.
  • disconsolate - Latin helps here. There's a word consolatus which means "encouragement".
  • ungainly - there's an obsolete word gainly, having a root meaning of proper or gracious, from a Middle English word geyn, meaning "straight".
  • unwieldy - well, we do occasionally use the word wield, as in holding something.
  • disambiguate - from ambiguous, no surprises there.
  • inept - Latin again - ineptus, meaning unsuited or absurd. "Ept" was used by the writer E.B. White, again in humorous fashion, although adept works, too.
  • impromptu - once again, Latin in promptu, meaning in readiness.
  • dishevelled - French, this time, deschevel√©
  • dismantle - orginally meant to removed one's mantle, or cloak, and there was an opposite mantle, which meant the opposite, now out of use and favour. The newsgroup uk.rec.sheds uses "mantle" to mean build, again in jocular mode.
  • uncouth - finally, back to where we started. There was a word couth, a form of the Old English word cunnan, meaning well-known related to the German kennen (from whence we get the Scots English ken, as in "D'ye ken John Peel"*) .Over time, "uncouth" came to mean "foreign", but the modern meaning developed later, in the 16th century, although a positive form persisted in Scotland for a while.
  • discombobulated - a fanciful 19th-century American offering. (Thanks, etouffee and MaxClimb.)
  • ineffable (Middle English and Latin), indomitable, innocent and innocuous (all three are 17th century, and Latin).

There. Aren't you happy now? More consolate? Good, although spotting true orphans is fraught with difficulty, as Excalibre points out.

For a final treat, I refer you to a short story, written in orphan negatives, and available at http://www.alphadictionary.com/fun/orphan_negatives.html - enjoy.

maxClimb says re orphan negative: That impromptu example had me discombobulated for a bit also.


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