Don't Worry, Be Gruntled

Words that only have negative connotations.

Bonnie Mills, read by Mignon Fogarty,
June 6, 2013
Episode #370

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“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.

Next: Can You Ever Be "In Whack" Instead of "Out of Whack"?


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