Negatives Without Positives

The title of this piece sounds quite a bit more depressing than it actually is. 

I am not talking about situations with no upside, but simply words that are in common use and carry a negative prefix (“negatives”), but where their base – the word without the prefix, or the word with what is normally the opposite prefix (“positives”) – has fallen into disuse. As we shall see, the principle can be applied to suffices as well.

To borrow a term from zoology, the type species for Negatives Without Positives (NWPs) might be uncouth: you certainly can be uncouth, but you can’t be couth.

Ever since C&V[1] introduced me to the idea in my university days, some small cranny of my brain has been alert to them, and when I spot one in casual reading or in conversation with someone, some neurons spontaneously light up, and it pleases me, 

“Ah, another of my friends…”.

The problem is, they are cognitively slippery, and very easy to forget. Over the years, with the help of others (frequently Shlomo[2]), I have noticed plenty, but now, without effort, can recall only few to memory. There is a low-tech solution to this forgetfulness, and that is to write them down. The purpose of this blog entry is precisely that: here is a ragged list of Negatives Without Positives, which I will try to update from time to time, as new instances present themselves.

First, a few base examples, as a kind of mental warm-up:

As noted above, you can be uncouth, but you can’t be couth.

Although incorrigible is a perfectly acceptable word, you would never say someone was corrigible.

Inept works, but you would appear inept if you attempted to call something or someone ept.

(As a parenthetical aside, this is one of those rare situations where it is very satisfying that your spell-checker flags a word as fundamentally wrong, something which has just occurred: my spell-checker coughed on the word ept. So it sort of confirmed what I was trying to say. Interestingly enough, it didn’t complain about couth, so I looked it up in Wikipedia’s sister site, Wiktionary. Couth is noted as obsolete in general English, but remains in current use in Scotland, carrying a subtly different meaning, a variant of “couthie”, agreeable, friendly, pleasant.) 

A close and much-loved relative of mine, JT, recently noted that although she can be disgruntled, she has never experienced the joy of being gruntled. And I hope she never does.

A curious sub-class of NWP occurs when the positive word actually exists in the language, but it covers other meanings, and is not the opposite of its negative. So yes, the word communicated exists, but if you have been excommunicated from the church, you don’t get communicated if one day they let you back in. Likewise, different clearly exists in English, but it is not the opposite of indifferent.

And wait, there are more sub-classes. Rather than being the opposite of inflammableflammable means the same thing. Kind of a “negative with a positive which is actually negative”.

And on to the double-whammy (for which, I need to thank AK for a slightly beery explanation in a small pub in an even smaller ski resort, many years ago): Yes, of course, one can be interested, and its valid opposite is, properly, uninterested, but definitely not disinterested. I’ve known the distinction for a long time now, but have always had to do the linguistic equivalent of counting on my fingers to recall which is which, that disinterested means having “no skin in the game”, having nothing to gain from whatever the subject is. So, if you were a defendant in a legal battle, you would not want the judge to be uninterested in the case, but you might certainly want him or her to be disinterested.

Back to the main list:

“She has impeccable judgement.” But sorry, “Sadly, his judgement is peccable.” just doesn’t work.

You can be nonplussed by something, but you cannot be plussed by it. (Interestingly, Wiktionary notes that generally nonplussed means to be bewildered or confused; only recently, in North America, does it also acquire the sense of being unimpressed.)

In is interesting to note that many NWPs are not exactly common words. I wonder if this is because if they were common words, their corresponding positives would be less likely to fall into disuse, and so they would never have become NWPs in the first place.

The fact that they are rare makes them all the more satisfying and savoury upon discovery. One of my favourites, and most obscure, is incompossible, a perfectly good word, despite the fact that my spell checker coughs on it. Wiktionary does contain an entry for compossible, but for me, anyway, the former still lives, but the latter has ceased to exist.

(As another aside, I cannot resist including Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary definition for incompossible

“INCOMPOSSIBLE, adj. Unable to exist if something else exists. Two things are incompossible when the world of being has scope enough for one of them, but not enough for both — as Walt Whitman’s poetry and God’s mercy to man.”

If you don’t know of Ambrose Bierce — an American journalist writing in the latter half of the 19th century – it is time to gen-up on him. He had a wicked sense of humour, his The Devil’s Dictionary contains all sorts of playful, teasing twists of the language. His definition of “homicide” is one of his best:

“HOMICIDE, n. The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homicide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another — the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.”

“Praiseworthy” Thus – and more – Bierce.)

Of course most of the examples we’ve looked at exist because the positive has fallen into disuse. But there is no hard boundary to cross or criterion to apply in declaring a word obsolete. Rather, it is thoroughly subjective: you hear the word, and it just plain sounds wrong. This is my sense with compossible: Wiktionary hasn’t declared it dead yet, but it is to me.

This subjectivity gives rise to a problem itself: the uncouth – couth couplet was one of the first I came across, and I have now described it to so many people – using couth as part of the description, that couth now actually sounds okay to me. The sanity check comes when I speak with others: everyone, but everyone agrees couth just doesn’t cut it any more. They disabuse me of my vague impression that it is a good word.

And so we come to disabuse. Of course you can abuse something (or sadly, someone) but that is not the opposite of disabusing them of something. I wonder if the term (Wiktionary defines it as “to free (someone) of a misconception or misapprehension; to unveil a falsehood held by someone…”) didn’t originally mean to correct someone of their misuse, their abuse of something, so, to take their abuse away from them. 

And on to the macabre. If a Mafioso hitman or an anatomy lab teacher dismembers a body, they cannot undo the damage by remembering it. This one is actually a bit of a cheat, because if you look at the etymology of the two words, the “-member” part comes from different old roots. In the case of dismember, “-member” comes from membre, meaning “limb”. In remember, the root is from memor, meaning “mindful”.

To close, I promised an example that employs the suffix rather than the prefix. The best one (only the best because it is the only one that comes to mind) is gormless, whose opposite is surely not gormful.

I’ll stop there, but as more come to mind, I’ll update this post. There are a lot of them out there.[3]

[1] As in all of my blogs, I use the initials of real people, usually friends, to refer to them. If by chance they read an article, they can know I am addressing them. But they should remain anonymous, under the principle, cited by some old television or radio programme long since forgotten, “…only the names have been changed, to protect the innocent…”

[2] Not a set of initials, but a nickname sufficiently untraceable. She should remain anonymous, for the same reason cited in footnote number 1.

[3] As always, it seems in such things, special thanks to Shlomo.