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Talking about words, I have always been intrigued by what looks like the disappearance of opposites……. like “gruntle”, “appointed”.  I was very gruntled and appointed when we won.

Clive Hutchinson, private correspondence, 18 December 2019

Thus wrote Clive Hutchinson, a schooldays’ friend of mine, during a recent email exchange in which we swapped stories about our schooldays at the King’s School, Grantham in the late 1950s. I had commented on the spelling variations of my surname, Bennetts, and Clive responded with his surname’s variations and then added the extra observation above.

Clive’s remarks got me thinking.  When he wrote, ‘I was very gruntled and appointed when we won,’ did he mean he was in a good mood (gruntled, the opposite to disgruntled), and appointed (satisfied, the opposite to disappointed)? Is gruntle an adjective meaning to be happy and when did appointed ever mean satisfied? Why does nobody use the word gruntle anymore?  These questions not only started me searching for the answers; they also raised the question of what other words like gruntle exist that, maybe, could do with more exposure? Let’s find out.

Assuming first that gruntle exists or used to exist, disgruntle would appear to be created by prepending the prefix dis- to the root gruntle. The prefix dis- is used to negate or reverse the meaning of a root word. Thus, disable means not able, disagree means not agree, disconnect means not connected, and so on. There are other prefixes that negate the meaning of a root word.  They are: a- – without, not (amoral, agnostic, atheist); de- – opposite, negative, removal, separation (debug, defrost, demote); dis- –opposite, negative (disable, disagree, disengage); im-/in- – negative, not (imbalance, immaterial, inaccurate, inappropriate); non- – absence, not (non-achiever, non-alcoholic, nonlinear); un- – negative, not, opposite, reversal (unaccompanied, undo, unequal).

I searched in Wiktionary for any words that are familiar as prepended suffixed words, such as disgruntled, but not familiar as root words, such as gruntle. Here is what I found. (Links to specific Wiktionary pages are built into the following section titles.)

Prefix a-: can sometimes represent without, not

I found nothing in the a- words. Consider back and its prefixed form aback?  Does aback mean not the back? If you are taken aback, is that fundamentally different to being taken back?  Yes, but not in the way that you are taken front. Taken back means returned; taken aback means surprised. It turns out that aback is a contraction of at the back of, not a prefixed version of back.  In a similar way, abide/bide, ablaze/blaze and asunder/sunder are not opposites. The two versions of each word have similar, not opposite, meanings.  But abiology is not biology. They are opposites. Biology is the study of living organisms whereas abiology is the study of inorganic or lifeless bodies.

Prefix de-: opposite, negative, removal, separation

There wasn’t much in the de- words either but three words caught my attention: debuccalize, decapitate and degomble.

Debuccalize means to move the location of a sound inside the mouth from its original location back to the glottis in the throat.  An example is saying ‘Get ready’ as ‘Ge’ ready’. The hard T consonant sound present in the first version is pronounced at the front of the mouth by the tongue and teeth. In the second version, the T has been moved towards the back of the throat and either severely softened in sound or lost all together.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a verb to buccalize but there’s not as far as I can discover.  It seems that we don’t move a pronunciation of a sound from the back of the throat to the front of the mouth, not yet anyway. But when we do, the verb is waiting and, by the way, we will spell it as buccalise, not buccalize!

Similarly decapitate. To decapitate, meaning to behead, is a verb whereas capitate is both a noun (a bone in the hand) and an adjective (forming a head) but I can find no mention of a verb to capitate. If we ever have need of a verb meaning to place a head on, to capitate would serve well.

I’ve kept the best de- word until last: degomble.  Listed in Bernadette Hince’s A Complete Guide to Antarctic English, published in 2000, degomble means to remove packed snow from, for example, your boots before entering a building. Fair enough but the question arises; would you ever want to gomble snow on your boots or elsewhere? Yupiks and Intuits probably gomble snow on top of their igloos but, as far as I can make out, there is no Yupik or Inuktitut word for this process. Ah well, if an extra word is needed by those who build igloos, we have just the word.

Prefix dis-: opposite, negative

And now we come to disgruntle and disappoint. Are they derivatives of gruntle and appoint and, if so, what are meanings of these two root words? Let’s take gruntle first. I found two explanations of this word. The Online Etymology Dictionary said that gruntle was an old-fashioned (early 15th century) word meaning to be satisfied or pleased. Hence, disgruntle would mean the opposite of this and Clive’s use of gruntle is fine.  The same source, however, then went on to say that disgruntle was a root verb meaning to make a grunt-like sound of displeasure and the addition of the dis- suffix was an intensifier not a negation. So, if you gruntled, you were displeased but if you disgruntled, you were greatly displeased. Hmm, which version should we use? I would plump for redefining gruntle to mean making a grunt-like sound of pleasure, not displeasure, and retaining the current not-pleased/grumpy definition of disgruntle.

How about disappoint? We know appoint means to decide/resolve/arrange/put in charge, so how did disappoint come to mean fail to please? Originally, disappoint did mean to remove from office/undo an appointment, both of which would induce a feeling of sadness in the affected person. Hence, the meaning of disappoint probably morphed into a more general meaning of a feeling of unhappiness/failure to please – disappointment – but appoint has retained its original meaning and not morphed into the opposite of disappoint. Consequently, Clive’s use of appoint did not convey his happiness when his team won.

Here, in brief, are a few more dis- words I found that proved interesting.

Discard = dis- + card, meaning to throw away. Is there a verb to card? Yes. It means to write something on a card (for indexing).  Discard is not a prefixed version of a verb to card.  It comes from throwing away a card when playing card games i.e. a verb in its own right.

Discumber = dis- + cumber, meaning to relieve, get rid of. There is a verb cumber/encumber meaning to hinder or hamper. Hence, discumber/desencumber is a reasonable negation of cumber/encumber.

Discombobulate = dis- + combobulate, meaning to confuse. This also makes sense. Combobulate means to compose, organise, or arrange but who nowadays says, ‘I need to combobulate the folders and files on my computer,’? Who indeed even knows the difference between folders and files on a computer? For the answer, go here.

Disruly = dis- + ruly, meaning unruly/disorderly.  Ruly does mean conforming to rule but seldom do we hear anyone use this word.

Prefix im-/in-: negative, not

Here are three interesting words starting with in-:

Inscrutable = in- + scrutable, meaning mysterious, of an obscure nature.  There is a word scrutable meaning capable of being understood, comprehensible. ‘My maths’ teacher is brilliant. She makes algebra scrutable.’

Invaluable = in- + valuable does not mean of no value.  It means of very high value, priceless.

Similarly, inflammable = in- + flammable does not mean cannot be set on fire; quite the opposite.

Prefix non-: absence, not

Here are two non- words of interest:

Nonchalant = non- + chalant, meaning calm and relaxed. I wondered about the word chalant. It does exist and means concerned about every detail so nonchalant is a reasonable negation of chalant.

Nondescript = non- + descript, meaning lacking any identifiable features. I discovered that descript is an archaic adjective meaning having distinctive features and nowadays replaced by descriptive.

Prefix un-: negative, not, opposite, reversal

All the un- words I looked at were straightforward negations of common root words. The only interesting word I found was putdownable. In the preface to my 2018 book, The Mechanics of Creative Writing, I wrote:

Do you fancy yourself as a creative writer?  Do you enjoy composing great works of literary art—meticulous texts, elegant e-mails, scathing or amusing letters to an editor, scintillating blogs, entertaining short stories, erudite reference books, unputdownable novels?  Is there even such a word as unputdownable?  (There is now!)

At the time, I thought I had invented the word unputdownable but I discovered that not only is it a word, it is derived from putdownable meaning uninteresting. Well, I never!

Now I’m away to compose a short piece of prose that uses each of the following twelve words, or derivatives thereto: abiology, buccalise, capitate, chalant, combobulate, cumber, descript, gomble, gruntle, putdownable, ruly, and scrutable. You can try as well. If you do, here’s a summary of the words and their meanings.

Abiology (noun), study of inorganic or lifeless bodies.
Buccalise (verb), move the pronunciation of a sound from the back of a throat to the front of the mouth.
Capitate (verb), to place a head on.
Chalant (adj.), concerned about every detail.
Combobulate (verb), to compose, organise, arrange.
Cumber (verb), to hinder or hamper.
Descript (adj., noun), having distinctive features.
Gomble (verb), to add packed snow to something.
Gruntle (verb), making a grunt-like sound of pleasure. (My redefined definition.)
Putdownable (adj.), uninteresting.
Ruly (adj.), conforming to rule.
Scrutable (adj.), capable of being understood, comprehensible.

If you beat me to it, email me.