Unusual English words with odd prefixes and suffixes

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This is going to be a bit of a ramble through some of the unusual English words; words like disgruntled, where the opposite isn’t exactly gruntled. There are quite a few of them scattered through the English language, and I’m going to have a rummage into their origins, just a little, to try and find out why we say the opposite of ruthless is merciful not ruthful, for example.

skull and cross bones flagShall we begin with ruthless, then, meaning without pity or compassion? A character in Arthur Ransome’s book Swallows and Amazons wished to be called Nancy, instead of her given name of Ruth, ‘because Amazons are ruthless’. But the opposite, ruth, isn’t commonly heard. However, ruth in Middle English did indeed mean mercy or pity.

Disgruntled (meaning angry and dissatisfied) is another word like ruthless, where the opposite sounds odd to our ears. People sometimes use gruntled to be funny, meaning happy and satisfied, but it appears they may be mistaken. My information on disgruntled comes from a blog post I referenced a few weeks ago at http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-dis1.htm. But in a nutshell, the origin of the word is ‘grunt’. It’s been made into ‘gruntle’, using an old fashioned grammatical form for an action which is repeated, and was in use in this form in the 15th Century. The ‘dis’ on the front is an intensifier, making the word more so than without it. So it literally means ‘grunting around a lot’. Even more appropriate for some people than I thought!

Mistake, either ‘an error’ (noun), or ‘to make an error’ (verb), seems to be another one of those words, where the opposite isn’t ‘to take’, but ‘correct’, or ‘to correct’. But the original sense of the word was to literally mis-take; to take in error. This one’s probably from the Old Norse mistaka.

Another word among the list of mis-words in the dictionary (misspell, misrepresent, mistrust) which doesn’t behave as it should is, appropriately, mischief. Not the opposite of ‘chief’. Mischief has become milder and more humorous lately, but originally the meaning of mischief was literally ‘misfortune’. The Oxford dictionary explains: ”It came from Old French meschever ‘come to an unfortunate end’, based on chef ‘head’.”

Dis-words are usually about the negative or reverse of the word they’re derived from. Discordant, dissatisfied, disentangle for example. But there are bunches of words which don’t appear to follow this rule. Disaster, disgusting, dishevelled, as just a short list. So, from the top then:

Disaster comes from Latin and Italian roots, with astra / astro meaning star. So the Italian disastro (dis ­ + astro) means ‘ill-starred’.

Disgusting is also Latin in origin, with dis meaning negative and gusto meaning taste. And via Italian disgusto and French desgout, we have something that doesn’t taste great, even though we don’t use gust to mean taste. However, ‘to do something with gusto’ means to have enthusiasm, or an appetite, for it, so we’ve not entirely lost the word’s roots in modern English after all!

Dishevelled, commonly applied to a person’s appearance, means scruffy, messed up, untidy. The original meaning, from the Old French deschevele, was ‘having the hair uncovered’, and the observant can maybe spot the French for hair, cheveux, in there too.

empty treadmillI suspect I will revisit this topic, as I’ve not even scratched the surface. There are un-words where we don’t use the un-un-word, -ful words which don’t have an opposite without the -ful, or even a -less. And ex-words where the opposite isn’t in-, as exclude and include. ‘Not exercising’ is ‘lazy’, not in-cercising, for instance!

Thanks for reading – see you again soon.

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