To simplify a bit, words that appear as if they should have an opposite but do not (such as disheveled).
Unbeknownst to many listeners, in addition to being a lovely sounding word for being in disarray, untidy or bedraggled, the term disheveled (D-I-S…) boasts another distinction: it is an example of an unpaired word or, to simplify a little, a word that appears as if it should have an opposite but does not. While I might emerge from a rainstorm disheveled, no matter how I went into it, no one could describe me as having been “heveled.”
That’s because while words like “disheveled” appear to be constructed using a negative prefix (in this case “dis”) plus another word, as we see with terms like “disarmed” and “disinterested,” leading to the logical conclusion that we can change or remove the prefix to reveal a different meaning or root, that isn’t actually the case. Disheveled, for example, is not a combination of dis and the elusive heveled, but comes to us whole from the Old French deschevelé, meaning having one’s hair uncovered, which evolved to refer generally to having loose or messy hair, and then even more generally to the adjective disheveled as we use it today.
Though words like disheveled are broadly referred to as unpaired, that isn’t always technically true. In many cases there was a pairing, but the paired word has become obsolete and practically disappeared. Such is the case with a word I’ve covered here before, ineffable, as well as others like innocent and indomitable. It is possible to describe someone as nocent or domitable, but those words have essentially disappeared from the language.
In other cases, the words start out unpaired but language, the unruly phenomenon that it is, sees an opposite created, often humorously, as a “back-formation.” This is the case with disgruntled, whose opposite, to be gruntled, was coined later, to comic effect and employed by writers like P. G. Wodehouse, who wrote in _Extract: The Code of the Woosters that
[Bertie Wooster] 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, so I tactfully changed the subject.
Or, much more recently (in 2007, to be exact), Corey Redekop in Shelf Monkeys, who writes:
Without context, terrorists are simply disgruntled psychos with bad hair days. I’m not disgruntled, Mr. McCormack. Never been. If anything, I’m gruntled to the extreme, an exemplary instance of maximum gruntlitude
Nor does the missing pair to what have been called “lonely negatives” have to involve a prefix, even though that is by far the most common kind. You’ve probably heard of—or perhaps more unfortunately experienced the fallout that emanates from—someone who is feckless, as in feeble or ineffectual, but its seemingly natural opposite, feckful, is basically never used. You will often hear reckless but, except perhaps in a poem I’ve just started composing with these lines, reckful really isn’t a thing.
In fact, the unpairing doesn’t have to involve a missing opposite, the dolence to my indolence. It might just be a matter of intensity. For example, in a particularly memorable episode of the US version of The Office, hapless manager Michael Scott insists, in what would become a bit of a meme seen online and on t-shirts and coffee mugs, that he isn’t superstitious, but he is “a little stitious.”
Learning that there is no word “stitious” meaning less than “superstitious” might have left Michael Scott nonplussed, but thanks to linguists and their incorrigible penchant for labelling, we know that like the unpaired words I’ve been talking about so far, the lack of stition in our lives represents another kind of accidental gap or, to be implacably word nerdious, a morphological gap.
Ultimately, our understanding of words as unpaired or representing a gap is based on how we (subconsciously, but ruthlessly) tend to break words down and consider the meaning of their parts even as we embrace their whole. We know that non- is a common prefix that negates a word so we assume that nonchalant is a negation of chalant when, in reality, the latter doesn’t exist except as an illustration of its absence.
This linguistic perception of the (de)composition of words can be used to fool our ears, as illusions of depth can fool our eyes. Felicia Lamport, light verse legend and one of the English language’s greatest punsters, was a master of this technique, with numerous excellent examples to be found in her books Light Metres and Scrap Irony (both worth searching out with their illustrations by the inimitable Edward Gorey). Here, for example, is the entirety of “Fine Old Professor,” a short poem that seems particularly apt here:
The students who had gnored him
Universally adored him
And he died beknownst and famous:
A gnominious gnoramus.
As we can see, the parts of words we identify as a prefix or suffix might not actually mean anything either. For instance, knowing that the word “light” is a thing, we might assume the twi in “twilight” must mean something when, in fact, it doesn’t. In this case, the twi is known as a fossilized term, or a word that has no independent meaning except in service of distinguishing one word from another (if you want to get all linguistic about it, this is called a bound morpheme).
A less bleak name for this phenomenon is cranberry morpheme, so-called because the cran in cranberry means nothing when not part of the latter word (the cran being derived from the avian crane). Compare that—and I’m getting hungry now—with blackberry or strawberry, where the black and the straw obviously have independent meaning and, in the former at least, have a clear connection to the thing they refer to.
In the innovative, sometimes impudent, hands of humorists, however, the unnatural other halves of unpaired words can be used to great effect…in a way that makes our earlier examples look downright tame.
In One of Our Thursdays is Missing, the sixth novel in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next literary detective series, she writes:
I moved quietly to the French windows and stepped out into the garden to release the Lost Positives that the Lady of Shalott had given me. She had a soft spot for the orphaned prefixless words and thought they had more chance to thrive in Fiction than in Poetry. I let the defatigable scamps out of their box. They were kempt and sheveled but their behavior was peccable if not mildly gruntled. They started acting petuously and ran around in circles in a very toward manner.
In perhaps the most famous (or should I say “sipid?”) example, legendary comedian Jack Winter begins his very short New Yorker story “How I Met My Wife” this way:
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.
And these lonely, unpaired words even make their way into music, such as in the song “Kempt” by Tripod, a little ditty about a lonely, unpaired person using exactly the right language:
But you were kempt, so kempt
Everything about you was seemly
You were kempt, so kempt
Of course I’d be bedevilled
So gusting and so shevelled