Word Nerd: Do All Words Attract Opposites?

21 Nov


Maybe you’ve been chided for being disheveled, but have you ever been complimented for being ‘shevelled’ or ‘hevelled’? And there must’ve been times when you were dismayed, but were you ever just ‘mayed’? Chances are, you’ve answered no to both questions.

It’s because English, like life, is not made of binaries. Not every word has an opposite. Not all opposites are easy to guess, regardless of how familiar we are with the language.  And that tends to trip most of us.

Normally, the addition of prefixes forms opposites, like dis-, il-, im-, in-, irr- and un-. Think of words like agree, comfort, legal, legible, mobile, perfect, accurate, decent, rational, regular, able, and usual.

But then, there are words which English borrowed from other languages – like disheveled and dismayed. Both came from Old French. So there never was a ‘sheveled’ and ‘mayed’. Similarly, inept, which comes from Latin (ineptus – unsuited or clumsy), never has had the opposite ‘ept’ to suggest and efficiency, skill or suitability. Latin also gave English inane (silly). But, it’s unlikely that you will ever receive a compliment for your ‘ane’ questions or answers. That’s because that word doesn’t exist. Another example is inert. If you’re feeling energetic, declaring that you’re “particularly ert today,” will just confuse everyone.

An interesting exception to these Latin origin words is indefatigable. It does have an opposite, which is not ‘defatigable’, but fatigable. Not a word in common use. Other confusing uses of the in- prefix are with the words flammable and valuable. Adding the prefix does not change the meaning.

Another class of opposites is created by adding a suffix, like -ful or -less. Remorseful and remorseless, careful and careless, shameful and shameless… it’s a long list. But, again, there are exceptions to this rule – ageless, bashful, countless, awful, skillful, gormless.

So, the answer is that not all words attract opposites. But then there is disgruntled which, thanks to Wodehouse, has a funny backformation – ‘gruntled’. The origin of this use is in “Code of the Woosters”, “I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

Are there any words which leave you disgruntled when you think of their opposites? Or are there any backformations you use and would like to share with us?

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