Don't Worry, Be Gruntled

Words that only have negative connotations.

Bonnie Mills, Writing for
5-minute read
Episode #370


Today, guest writer Bonnie Mills is going to tell us why we’re rarely “gruntled,” “sheveled,” or “in whack,” but why we are often “disgruntled,” “disheveled,” and “out of whack.”

Bonnie says,

Thanks to interesting questions from Glenn, we’ll be talking about words or phrases that have only a negative connotation; there is no opposite word with a positive connotation (with one exception). These negative words might seem a bit wacky, but we’ll look back at the origins of English to discover why..

Negative Prefixes

Let’s start with “disheveled.” In this case, the “dis-” prefix adds a negative element. Other negative prefixes are “non-,” “un,” and “in-” (which changes to “il-,” “im-,” and “ir-” before certain letters). You can also sometimes make something negative by putting “anti-” in front of it. You simply add the prefix to the stem word to create a new word that has a negative connotation.

You can add these prefixes to the beginning of nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and verbs to make them negative. So you could take the stem word “honest” and add the prefix “dis-” to get “dishonest.” Likewise, take the stem word “happiness” and add the prefix “un-” to come up with “unhappiness.” You get the idea.

Many words starting with “dis-,” such as “disability,” “disapprove,” and “disagreeing,” have corresponding positive words: “ability,” “approve,” and “agreeing.” However, “disheveled” does not have a corresponding positive word. You aren’t heveled.



“Disheveled” means messy and often refers to hair or clothing. I learned the fascinating history of this word by reading my dictionary. You probably wouldn’t guess that the French word for “hair” is at the root of “disheveled.” (1) However, it originates from the prefix “dis-” plus the word “chevel,” which means “hair.” Anyone who has studied French will remember that “hair” is “les cheveux.” “Discheveled” is hair with a negative connotation.

Note also that “discheveled” is one of those words that has one “l” in American English and two in British English. Thank Noah Webster; he’s the one who changed the American spelling.

Other Interesting Origins of Negative Words

Let’s do another “dis-” word. “Disaster” has an interesting history, too. Unfortunately, we can’t say that something good was an “aster.” The word “disaster” comes from the prefix “dis-” plus the word “astro,” which of course means “star.” (2) An obsolete meaning of the word “disaster,” according to my dictionary, is “an evil influence of a star or planet.”

You could probably spend hours poring through your dictionary learning the meanings of words that these days have only a negative connotation. If you want to have a bit of fun instead of working or studying, try looking up “nonchalant”; as I’m sure you’re aware, you won’t find “chalant” in the dictionary. (I’ll give you a hint: “chalant” is related to the French word “to heat.”) You might also have fun with “insipid,” with the “sipid” part somehow related to the Latin word “to taste.”


And now to get to Glenn’s question about “disgruntled.” It’s a different bird from the others we’ve talked about.

First, instead of being negative, the “dis-” prefix in “disgruntled” is an intensifier. It means “utterly” or “completely” and adds emphasis to the root.

Back in the 1600s “gruntling” meant “grumbling.” So if someone was gruntling, they were even more upset if they were disgruntling--and it does look like “disgruntle” was a verb before it became an adjective and we started to use it to describe people’s emotions.

Second, some people think that “gruntled” isn’t a word, but it has actually become one according to dictionaries. They say “gruntled” is a back-formation that people derived from “disgruntled.” In other words, so many people thought “disgruntled” should have the corresponding positive word, “gruntled,” that it emerged and was accepted. Granted, the word isn’t common, but the first known use of “gruntled” as an adjective to mean “in good humor” or “pleased” in the Oxford English Dictionary is attributed to P.G. Wodehouse, who included this sentence in his 1938 novel The Code of the Woosters:

He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary puts the first use in 1926, but doesn’t show the source.


'Out of Whack'

Now we’ll leave the “dis-” words and our dictionaries as well. They weren’t much use when I faced Glenn’s last conundrum: the phrase “out of whack,” which means "not functioning correctly." I had to go to the Internet to solve that mystery. I found an interesting site all about the English language, World Wide Words, hosted by Michael Quinion. (3) The “out of whack” page, which was actually working quite well, explains that in the nineteenth century, “There seems to have been a phrase ‘in fine whack,’ meaning that something was in good condition or excellent fettle.”

Apparently, someone by the name of John Hay described President Lincoln by saying, “The Tycoon is in fine whack.” Although this is not a very common phrase, it’s easy to see how “out of whack” could be the opposite of “in fine whack.” You can read more wacky details about “out of whack” on Quinion’s site. You could also probably spend hours there learning about other odd phrases. For example, I learned what “bafflegab” is. (4)

That’s about it for negative words that have no positive counterpart. Our language is filled with remnants of older forms of English. If you’re ever feeling disgruntled about anything, just nonchalantly distract yourself by reading your dictionary.


1. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, p. 518.

2. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th Edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2006, p. 514.

3. Michael Quinion, “Out of Whack,” World Wide Words, April 13, 2002, http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-out2.htm (accessed June 4, 2013).

4. Michael Quinion, “Bafflegab,” World Wide Words, June 25, 2005, http://www.worldwidewords.org/weirdwords/ww-baf1.htm (accessed June 4, 2013).


About the Author

Bonnie Mills, Writing for Grammar Girl

Bonnie Mills has been a copyeditor since 1996.

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