Language – Gruntled, Gusted, and Graced

By Mordechai Schiller

People keep dissing the English language.

No, I don’t mean dissing in the sense of “a clipped form of disrespect,” a slang term that “came into existence in the early 1980s and into vogue in the early 1990s” (Garner’s Modern English Usage).

I mean adding the prefix dis-, turning words around and making them mean their opposite.

The dissing has been going on since Middle English. (No, that doesn’t mean sixth- to eighth-grade English; it’s the English language spoken from 1150 to 1470.) It includes words like dis-content, dis-repair, dis-like, dis-appear, dis-able, and yes, dis-respect.

When my son Meilech was 4, we passed a construction site and he said, “Right, it’s easy to build a house if you think?”

I said, “It’s never easy to build a house. But you always have to think. You can’t build a house without thinking.”

“Oh yes,” he said. “If you have directions, you don’t have to think. You just follow the directions.”

Meilech’s insight came from his finding the directions that came with a Lego set too limiting. He followed his own creativity.

Why am I telling you this?

Words are like Lego blocks. With some thought, you can add attachments to words and create entirely new ones. The attachments are called affixes. As William Safire explained, an “affix is something added to a word at the beginning (prefix) or at the end (suffix) or in the middle (infix, as in absobloodylutely).” He called it “linguistic surgery.”

H.W. Fowler wrote that the prefixes de- and dis- function “to form a compound verb with the sense of undoing the action of the simple one, and they are an invaluable element in the language, constantly providing us with useful new words.”

Other common prefixes that flip words around to their opposite include un- (unfair), mis- (misunderstand), be- (behead), and im- (impossible).

Like power tools, affixes must be used with caution. Fowler warned, “It is dangerously easy for a writer to invent a new word of this kind to save himself the trouble of thinking of an existing antonym. ‘At the present rate of distortion of our language,’ it has been said, ‘it looks as if we should soon be talking about black and disblack, good and disgood.’”

Let’s keep in mind that words and Lego blocks are not identical. Unlike Lego, once you connect parts to some words, you can’t always disconnect them. They can become fused and take on a life of their own.

Newton’s third law of motion says, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” But, for every dis-, is there an equal and opposite un-dis? To get negative about it, are there words starting with dis that have a positive disposition? (For that matter, is someone indisposed posed?)

If an employee is dismissed and then rehired, is the employee missed?

Something gross can make you feel disgusted. Can something pleasant make you feel gusted?

A blunder can be a disgrace. Does receiving an award make you graced?

Jack Winter wrote a piece in The New Yorker filled with expressions whose prefixes were de-tached:

“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. …”

We hear about “disgruntled employees” who, if disgruntled enough, may become “whistle blowers.” But can there be gruntled employees? Well, it’s not so simple. OED cited a 1938 comic novel by P. G. Wodehouse, in which he described a character: “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.”

OED defined gruntled as an adjective, a back-formation from disgruntled, meaning “pleased, satisfied, contented.” But, before you get too gruntled, check out this apparent contradiction. OED listed two definitions for the verb gruntle:

1. To utter a little or low grunt. Said of swine, occasionally of other animals; rarely of persons.

2. To grumble, murmur, complain.

So, if gruntle means to grumble, what do disgruntled people have to grumble about? William Safire wrote: “You might think that if the old gruntle meant ‘complain,’ then disgruntle would mean ‘to stop from complaining,’ but language is not always logical.”

Gruntle comes from grunt. As Safire explained, grunts “are the short, deep, guttural sounds made by hogs, especially when eating. The word seeks to imitate the sound” [onomatopoeia]. Adding the -tle ending turns the word into “what lexicographers call a frequentive, a verb that describes repeated or recurrent action.”

(OED called it a “frequentative,” but Safire insisted that people who say frequentative “need preventive, not preventative, medicine.” I’m just a lexikibitzer, I don’t take sides.)

Safire said, “The frequentive of wrest is wrestle; of prate, prattle; of spark, sparkle; and the frequentive of grunt is gruntle.”

The British lexicographer Susie Dent wrote in The Guardian about our natural inclination to negativity. Is she positive about that? She has “made it a mission to highlight a category of English that linguists fondly call ‘orphaned negatives.’ These are the words that inexplicably lost their mojo at some point in the past, becoming a sorry crew of adjectives that includes unkempt, unruly, disgruntled, unwieldy, and inept.”

To my ears, the term “orphaned negatives” is insensitive to real orphans. But if we’re going to be offensive, let’s go whole hog:

Henry VIII would have had the negatives beheaded.

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to

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