Taking the good with the bad

by Mellissa Martinez

Last year, I came across an archived article from a 1994 New Yorker that relied exclusively on the misuse of language to express humor. In “How I Met My Wife,” Jack Winter cleverly drops the negating suffixes from common words to create playful affirmatives. He begins, “I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way.”

Although ‘array,’ ‘kempt,’ ‘shevelled’ and ‘gainly’ are not common, or even grammatical, it is easy to imagine that they should be. English speakers naturally expect an affirmative counterpart for most words formed with a negating suffix. We understand that by removing the negative prefixes from ‘unhappy,’ ‘improper,’ ‘dislike’ and ‘misunderstand,’ we are left with the constructive ‘happy,’ ‘proper,’ ‘like’ and ‘understand.’

There are many cases, however, where no such partnership exists. Consider ‘impetuous,’ ‘deject’ and ‘nonchalant.’ If we take away the prefixes in these cases, we are left with the non-existent petuous, ject and chalant. Did these words ever exist? The answer is yes. They may have existed in another language and never been adopted into English, or perhaps they were used in English but eventually became archaic. 

An example can be seen in the word ‘deject.’ This comes from the combination of de- ‘down’ and the Latin iacere ‘to throw.’ Iacere became ject, which was used as the base for ‘project,’ ‘abject,’ ‘conjecture’ and ‘eject.’ Ject no longer exists in English, but it does have a close relative from the same source, ‘jet,’ ‘to sprout or spurt forth.’ ‘Disgruntle’ also lost its base word gruntle, which once meant to ‘grumble.’ Today it exists in English as ‘grunt.’ 

The process of eliminating affirmative counterparts is happening even now. Consider, for example, ‘debunk.’ It was first used in 1923, meaning ‘take the bunk out of things.’ In the early 1900s, ‘bunk’ commonly referred to nonsense. Although it is still recognizable, I would argue that ‘debunk’ enjoys much wider usage. The same is true for words like ‘incorrigible,’ ‘disconcerting’ and ‘unbridled.’ When was the last time you praised your child for his corrigible behavior? Let’s face it—‘bunk,’ ‘corrigible,’ ‘concerting’ and ‘bridled’ are probably on their way out.

Some base words are not immediately obvious until the negating suffix is stripped away. For example, ‘incessant’ comes from ‘cease,’ ‘insipid’ from ‘sapient,’ ‘inept’ from ‘apt’ and ‘feckless’ from ‘effect.’ There are also those with surprising roots: ‘nonchalant’ comes from Latin calere, ‘to be warm’ and is related to ‘calorie’; impeccable is derived from Latin pecare ‘to sin,’ meaning that an impeccable person is not liable to sin; and ‘dishevel’ comes from the Old French chevel, ‘hair’ and originally meant ‘bare-headed.’

Sometimes people perceive a negative suffix, which doesn’t actually exist. In this case, a new word can emerge through backformation, which is basically the opposite procedure of normal word formation. Instead of adding suffixes to bases, perceived suffixes are omitted. In the case of ‘insane,’ for example, the Latin insanus, ‘mad’ was in use for centuries before the emergence of ‘sane.’ Speakers perceived in- to be a negative prefix (even though it wasn’t), so they dropped it to create the affirmative antonym, ‘sane.’

Most unpaired words are negative because it is more common for the positive forms to become rare. Restoring the positive, it turns out, can be fun. Perhaps this is because the meaning of these words is somehow beknownst to us on a subconscious level and we are mayed by the wordplay. We like the thought of creating new, yet familiar effable expressions. In fact, when I read the end of Winter’s tale,  “I have given her my love and she has requited it,” I thought…how refreshing it is to hear of requited love for once!


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