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Lex in the City: A positive spin on the negative

Melissa Martinez

by Mellissa Martinez

In recent weeks, COURIER readers have been sharing their views on the proposed police station. Although everyone seems to agree that we need a new station, there is vast disagreement on how to pay for it. Readers’ comments have made it quite clear that people are disgruntled and disappointed. 

Rest assured—I do not intend to jump into the debate; rather, I offer a respite from the incessant discussion and invite readers to consider a wordy take on the matter. Perhaps residents are feeling discombobulated because our lexicon isn’t providing us with an affirmative option. When was the last time you felt ‘appointed’ or ‘combobulated’?

Negation is a phenomenon that exists in all languages to express rejection, denial, reversal and non-existence. English relies on prefixes and suffixes to negate words, and, in most cases, we can easily identify affirmative counterparts. Consider ‘(dis)respect,’ (in)tolerant,’ ‘(non)sense,’ and ‘worth(less).’

In some cases, however, the negative exists without the affirmative. The most common examples are disgust, disgruntle, disheveled, inscrutable, indolent, incessant, innocent, reckless, incorrigible, intrepid, ruthless, nonchalant, unkempt, unruly, untoward, unwieldy, indomitable, incognito and ungainly. 

In many cases, the affirmative antonym existed at one time—or still does—but has fallen out of common use. ‘Scrutable,’ for example, is something that can be understood through scrutiny; ‘dolent’ means sorrowful or grieving; ‘cessantly,’ is another word for intermittently; ‘reck’ meant consideration in the 1400s; ‘corrigible’ refers to something capable of being corrected; ‘domitable’ is tamable; in the 1600s ‘calent’ meant warm or hot; and in the 1400s ‘nocent’ was used to describe a guilty person or criminal. 

In the cases of ‘disgusted’ and ‘disheveled’ the root word never existed in English. ‘Disgust,’ came from the already compounded French dégoût, and ‘disheveled’ from deschevele.’ Their affirmative root words were Italian gusto ‘taste,’ and French chevel ‘hair’ respectively. In the 1400s, ‘disheveled’ described someone who had the appearance of an undone hairdo. Chevel didn’t pass into English without its negating prefix, which is why we don’t describe people as looking ‘sheveled,’ when they are perfectly coifed.  

It’s important to note that the linguistic term ‘affirmative’ does not necessarily correspond with a positive meaning in a word. For example, ‘impeccable,’ ‘innocent,’ and ‘innocuous’ are all negative formations with positive connotations. And, in the case of ‘disdain’ and ‘disgruntle,’ both the compound and the original root word describe an unfavorable state. In Old English, dene meant distrust while gruntle referred to a low, complaining grunt (think ‘grumble’).

In other cases, the antonyms digressed in meaning so drastically over time that they are no longer recognizable as partners. ‘Whelm,’ for example means ‘to submerge in water to destroy or drown.’ It has become much less popular than its partners ‘overwhelm,’ and ‘underwhelm.’ This is also true of ‘disappoint,’ which was once the negative of ‘appoint.’ Originally, ‘disappoint’ meant ‘to undo the appointment of someone.’ It wasn’t until the mid 1500s that it was used to describe the emotion one feels from the undoing. 

So what about ‘discombobulate’? Is the root word ‘bobulate’ or ‘combobulate’? The answer is neither. The humorous term was fabricated in the early 1800s, when people were experimenting with language and creating new slang terms (like OK). First seen in a Georgia newspaper as ‘discomboberate’ the word was used as a joke, poking fun at those who used pretentious language. The Latin prefixes, dis- and com- make the word feel as if it’s Latin based, but ‘bob’ immediately sounds out of place and funny. The ending suffix, –ulate, is another attempt to make the word feel rooted in history.

Other versions include ‘discomboobulate’ and ‘discomboomerate.’ Just because the word is made up, doesn’t mean that it’s not a full-fledged member of our lexicon. In fact, linguist Ben Zimmer notes that the room immediately post-security check at the Milwaukee airport contains a large sign that reads recombobulation area. If millions of disheveled airline travelers passing through Milwaukee can recombobulate on a daily basis, then I strongly suggest that we Claremonters can too. Thankfully the negative compound ‘disagree’ has a clearly identifiable and positive affirmative.

I’m not trying to trivialize a situation that feels unanswerable, nor do I believe that there is one solution that will satisfy everyone, but let’s not dismiss the easily identifiable affirmatives from above—respect, tolerant, sense and worthy—as we move forward in our community discussion.

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