kempt and sheveled

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From François Lang:

I did not know you'd invented "topolect" and "character amnesia"!
Now…since you have a predilection for naming heretofore unnamed things, I am wondering if you could work your linguistic magic to describe words like "unkempt" and "disheveled", which appear far more often than their equivalent without the negative prefix.

I hope that pushes some linguistic buttons (assuming, of course, that no such word actually exists!).

The best I've come up with is "arhizomorphic", but I'm sure you and your Language Log groupies can do better!

Worth pondering:  whence cometh the negative form of "unkempt" and "disheveled"?

Selected readings


  1. Francois Lang said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 8:38 am

    Full disclosure here: The word "arhizomorphic" is due entirely to my former boss, colleague, and mentor Tom Rindflesch

  2. ycx said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 8:44 am

    The linguistic brother of Shia LaBeouf: Tom Rindflesch

  3. David Marjanović said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 8:56 am

    Kempt is obviously "combed" by etymology. In German, "combed" is gekämmt, note the umlaut.

  4. Taylor, Philip said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 9:16 am

    I rather like "whelmed" and "underwhelmed", but if I were asked to coin one would probably go for "parsome", as in "he was parsome in his praise".

    "Disheveled" is, I believe, ultimately from "shail" — to stumble, to walk or move in a shuffling, shambling manner.

  5. Peter Grubtal said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 9:20 am

    Wodehouse of course made great play with "gruntled".

  6. Cervantes said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 9:23 am

    "Kempt" is actually lexical, just to be accurate.

    "Hinged" is another word that only occurs in the negation in a metaphorical sense, although it's a perfectly good word in its literal sense.

  7. Toby Dorsey said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 9:37 am

    Perhaps what you are looking for is the opposite, but these seem like Jack Winterisms to me.


  8. Tom S. Fox said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 9:39 am

    They are called “unpaired words.”

  9. Rodger C said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 10:09 am

    I thought "disheveled" was related to "deshabille." Hence "heveled," which would be disappointing.

  10. Matt Sayler said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 10:18 am

    "They are called 'unpaired words.'"

    Or, for a modest pun: pairless.

  11. Jake Wildstrom said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 10:54 am

    I'm sure Tripod's "Kempt" has made the rounds here before, but I can't find it.

  12. mike said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 12:14 pm

    One term for these is "unpaired word"

  13. poftim said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 12:20 pm

    Dispositive words?

  14. Maxwell said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 12:43 pm

    A name has been in existence for decades, namely, lost positives, and the act of putting them back into use is called restoring lost positives.

    I learned those two terms in the late 1950s or early 1960s, when Merriam-Webster Inc. or the G. & C. Merriam Company (I can't remember which corporate name it was using at the time) periodically issued a leaflet about English and one of the articles was called "Restoring Lost Positives."

  15. Ralph J Hickok said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 1:03 pm

    @Taylor, Philip
    The great sportswriter Red Smith wrote this about a pro football team that had a record of 1win, 12 losses, and 1 tie:
    "They had overwhelmed one opponent, underwhelmed twelve, and whelmed one."

  16. Hans Adler said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 1:57 pm

    Like "lost positives" this does not directly answer the original question, but another related term that has been used in this context (at least once) is "uncommon opposites": .

    I can't immediately think of a good descriptive term for a word that looks as if it was derived from a rare or non-existent base word. As a (former) mathematical logician I am very much used to this kind of naming problem. Mathematicians often give up the search and rely on a range of prefixes signifying little more than "some special case of the base word", "some notion more special than the base word", or "some notion similar to the base word". In this spirit, I am throwing in the towel and proposing the following as a starting point in case nothing more descriptive comes up:

    An ACTIVE DERIVATION is a word that was actually derived from a base word that still exists and is in common use. (Very successful back formations of words whose base word was lost or never existed may turn them into active derivations later on!)

    A PARADERIVATION is a word that looks as if it should be a derivation, but is not an active derivation. This includes INACTIVE DERIVATIONS (base word once existed but is no longer in common use) and PSEUDODERIVATIONS (word was originally not derived as it appears to be).

    I am not a linguist, so it's quite likely that there is a more obvious pair of adjectives that I should have used here instead of active/inactive.

  17. VVOV said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 3:42 pm

    I just want to say that I *highly* appreciated @ycx's Boeuf / Rindflesch joke.

  18. Annie Gottlieb said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 4:15 pm

    My sister and I used to keep running lists of these. We called them "obs pos"—obsolete positives. Ept and ert and chalant come immediately to mind—there were dozen or scores more.

  19. Michael Watts said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 7:47 pm

    Inept's positive form isn't obsolete. It's apt, and unlike with unkempt, the relation to the positive form is not particularly obscure.

  20. Michael Watts said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 7:55 pm

    "Hinged" is another word that only occurs in the negation in a metaphorical sense, although it's a perfectly good word in its literal sense.

    This reminds me of a comment on the etymology of un- that I've always liked: "similarity of sense between negation and reversal caused the two prefixes to become hopelessly confused".

    I see "unhinged" as a metaphor that remains strongly connected to the literal sense of the word. If you interpret this as the un- of reversal, the reason nobody comments on a "hinged" state is that it's the normal background state. We're not dividing people into two types, hinged and unhinged; we're assuming that everyone has metaphorical hinges and describing people who have temporarily fallen off of them as "unhinged".

  21. Steve Morrison said,

    March 26, 2023 @ 8:24 pm

    I’ve seen “whelmed” actually used, by Tolkien in his Akallabêth:

    And even the name of that land perished, and Men spoke thereafter not of Elenna, nor of Andor the Gift that was taken away, nor of Númenórë on the confines of the world; but the exiles on the shores of the sea, if they turned towards the West in the desire of their hearts, spoke of Mar-nu-Falmar that was whelmed in the waves, Akallabêth the Downfallen, Atalantë in the Eldarin tongue.

  22. Andreas Johansson said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 1:56 am

    A slightly older example of "whelmed" in the wild is Lord Dunsany's "How the Gods Whelmed Sidith".

  23. Victor Mair said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 7:30 am

    I just used the word "obtrusive" in a sentence and, while I realized that it occurs fairly often, I had a strong sense of disparity with "unobtrusive", which occurs far more often. Maybe "obtrusive" has begun a slow slide into obscurity.

    "unobtrusive" — 28,400,000 ghits

    "obtrusive" — 6,710,000 ghits

  24. Francois Lang said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 8:54 am

    Could someone explain to poor benighted me @ycx's Boeuf / Rindflesch joke? I'm afraid I don't get it.

  25. Alexander Pruss said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 9:50 am

    While "unkempt" predominates over "kempt" in writing, is that so in contemporary speech? Both have been rare in my hearing, but I don't think that "kempt" has been the rarer of the two with users outside my family. Its jokey sound makes it appealing to use.

  26. Victor Mair said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 12:17 pm

    Even when I do use "obtrusive" in its positive form, I have a strong tendency to do so in combination with a separate negative word, e.g., "not (very) obtrusive".

  27. RfP said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 8:55 pm

    Dialogue from 10 Things I Hate About You:

    Chastity: I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?

    Bianca: I think you can in Europe.

  28. Arnold Baldwin said,

    March 27, 2023 @ 11:55 pm

    @ Francois Lang. I have no beef with either surname being spelled differently from “Rindfleisch” and “la boeuf” — although these are probably their origins.

    Perhaps we could adopt a mnemonic for spelling Shia’s surname of “Be off with you”. That would leave me gruntled without affecting my shevellment or kemptness.

  29. George said,

    March 28, 2023 @ 9:37 am

    Would you believe that I never actually noticed the 'eou' in 'LaBeouf'. It's always been the 'La' that jumps out at me.

  30. David Marjanović said,

    March 28, 2023 @ 4:09 pm

    "They had overwhelmed one opponent, underwhelmed twelve, and whelmed one."

    I love it.

  31. Bloix said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 12:07 pm

    from the OED:
    GRUNTLE, v… (f. GRUNT v. with dim. or frequentative ending -LE).
    1) To utter a little or low grunt. Said of swine, occas. of other animals, rarely of persons.
    2) To grumble, murmur, complain.
    GRUNTLING, n. … A little grunter, a young pig.

    DISGRUNTLE, v. … To put into sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humor; chiefly in p. ppl. …. Hence, Disgruntled, also Disgruntlement, moody discontent.

    The OED explains that in this and a few other cases, the "dis" is not a negative, but an intensifier.

  32. Taylor, Philip said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 2:00 pm

    Where do you see the bit about "dis" being used as intensifier, Bloix ? I have just looked at the full entry online (block-quoted below) and can find no mention thereof.

    disgruntle, v.

    Pronunciation: /dɪsˈɡrʌnt(ə)l/
    Frequency (in current use): Show frequency band information
    Etymology: < dis- prefix 1e + gruntle v., frequentative of grunt v.

    transitive. To put into sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humour; to chagrin, disgust. Chiefly in past participle.
    1682 H. Care Hist. Popery IV. 79 Hodge was a little disgruntled at that Inscription.
    a1683 P. Warwick Mem. Reign Charles I (1701) 226 [He] would not be sent unto her house..which the Lady was much disgruntled at.
    1726 N. Amhurst Terræ-filius (ed. 2) xlviii. 256 M'Phelim finds his prince a little disgruntled.
    1862 C. Thornton Conyers Lea xii. 224 The fair Tabitha retired to her room somewhat disgruntled.
    1884 Lisbon (Dakota Territory) Star 18 July [He] is very much disgruntled at Cleveland's nomination.

    disˈgruntled adj.
    1847–78 J. O. Halliwell Dict. Archaic & Provinc. Words Disgruntled, discomposed. Glouc.
    1891 Bryce in Contemp. Rev. Jan. A melancholy or gloomy or—to use an expressive American term—a ‘disgruntled’ temper.

    disˈgruntlement n. moody discontent.
    1889 Voice (N.Y.) 12 Sept. Partisans in all stages of disgruntlement were wandering aimlessly about.

  33. ktschwarz said,

    March 29, 2023 @ 6:15 pm

    "dis- prefix 1e" is a cross-reference (a hyperlink in the online version) to the relevant sense of dis-. Dictionaries assume readers understand how to follow cross-references.

    This sense of dis- was only a living prefix in English for a short time, and disgruntle is the only surviving word where it was applied to a non-Latinate base.

  34. phspaelti said,

    March 30, 2023 @ 1:03 am

    @ Arnold Baldwin: It isn't just the spelling that's the problem. "Bœuf" is also masculine, so it's "le bœuf" (or "LeBoeuf"?)

  35. Taylor, Philip said,

    March 30, 2023 @ 3:27 am

    Ah, yes, I see it now KT — thank you.

    e. With verbs having already a sense of division, solution, separation, or undoing, the addition of dis- was naturally intensive, ‘away, out and out, utterly, exceedingly’, as in disperīre to perish utterly, dispudēre to be utterly ashamed, distædēre to be utterly wearied or disgusted; hence it became an intensive in some other verbs, as dīlaudāre to praise exceedingly, discupĕre to desire vehemently, dissuavīrī to kiss ardently. In the same way, English has several verbs in which dis- adds intensity to words having already a sense of undoing, as in disalter, disaltern, disannul.

  36. YosemiteSemite said,

    March 31, 2023 @ 7:12 pm

    Here's a short piece from The New Yorker, published in the print edition of the July 25th, 1994, issue:

    SHOUTS AND MURMURS about man who describes meeting his wife at a party. In his description, he drops many prefixes. It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when 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. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I'd have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened. And even though I had only swerving loyalty to her, my manners couldn't be peccable. Only toward and heard-of behavior would do. Fortunately, the embarrassment that my maculate appearance might cause was evitable. There were two ways about it, but the chances that someone as flappable as I would be ept enough to become persona grata or sung hero were slim. I was, after all, something to sneeze at, someone you could easily hold a candle to, someone who usually aroused bridled passion. So I decided not to rush it. But then, all at once, for some apparent reason, she looked in my direction and smiled in a way that I could make heads or tails of. So, after a terminable delay, I acted with mitigated gall and made my way through the ruly crowd with strong givings. Nevertheless, since this was all new hat to me and I had no time to prepare a promptu speech, I was petuous. She responded well, and I was mayed that she considered me a savory char- acter who was up to some good. She told me who she was. "What a perfect nomer," I said, advertently. The conversation became more and more choate, and we spoke at length to much avail. But I was defatigable, so I had to leave at a godly hour. I asked if she wanted to come with me. To my delight, she was committal. We left the party together and have been together ever since. I have given her my love, and she has requited it.

  37. Arnold Baldwin said,

    April 1, 2023 @ 8:42 am


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