This post takes its title from a famous line in The Code of the Woosters (1938) by P.G. Wodehouse: "I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled." This is funny because as speakers of English we know that the prefix dis- means "not," so "disgruntled" clearly means "not gruntled," yet we also know that "gruntled" isn't really a word. But why not? And what about all the other funny non-words that English provides for our amusement… words like couth, sheveled, peccable, and turb? Why do we have negative words that seem to be built from nonexistent positives?
In fact there are several things going on here. The first, and most straightforward, is that sometimes the positive word did exist, but has simply becomes obsolete, while the negative version survives. This is the case with feckless, from feck, (an archaic Scots form of effect.) Another example is ruth, meaning compassion, which we still see in ruthless, but seldom anywhere else. We hear about inclement weather much more often than clement weather, which is mild, but may be on its way out of the language.
A second factor that contributes to the confusion is that sometimes the same prefix or suffix has had different meanings over the history of the language. Even though the vast majority of dis-s in English mean "not," the dis- in disgruntled was different. It's an intensifier, as in disannul (not that that's a word I ever use anyway.) The Latin prefix meant "apart, asunder," so sticking it in front of most words negates them, but sticking it in front of a word that's already negative can simply make it stronger. In this case the prefix also seems to have something to do with the fact that disgruntled has only ever been used as an adjective: "The workers were disgruntled about the new vacation policy" or "Disgruntled workers are not very productive;" but never as a verb: "The new vacation
policy disgruntled everyone." But in any case, the original root gruntle was already negative, meaning "grumble, grouse," and did not mean "cheerful, content," as Wodehouse would have it.
|The princess was far from gruntled when her back was|
bruised by a hard, green back-formation.
The creation of a word gruntled that means the opposite of disgruntled is a process called back-formation. That's when speakers of a language use a word thinking that it must be the root of an existing word, when in fact it's a brand new creation. It can be used deliberately for comic effect, as Wodehouse does, but it has happened unconsciously more often than you probably realize. In each of the following cases, the word that looks like the root actually entered the language much later than the word that looks like the derivative.
diagnose is a back-formation from diagnosis
edit from editor
execute from execution
injure from injury
kidnap from kidnapper (or at least, that's the hypothesis)
pea from pease
self-destruct from self-destruction
(instead of destroy, which is the original verb)
statistic from statistics
televise from television
But just for fun, let's try out a few silly back-formations…
"Excuse me, am I disturbing you?" "Not at all. In fact, I'm quite turbed to see you."
"I know you'll be discreet, but I have to remind you that we really can't afford any cretion." (So much more sensible than that ridiculous double negative in indiscretion!)
"He walked into the meeting whistling nonchalantly, but when he came out he was wringing his hands and looking utterly chalant."
"When I saw the dress rehearsal I thought the play was going to be a complete disaster, but opening night turned out to be an aster!"
[Picture: The Princess and the Pea, rubber block print (with watercolor detail) by AEGN, 2008.]