Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Unfix that Prefix

On an idle night in Tucson, Arizona, my good friend Erica and I were drinking Framboise Lambic. While discussing the state of modern language, we became suddenly incensed at the words in English which have prefixes that cannot be "unfixed."

This is what happens when two friends who are semi-intellectual get together after two years of fond absence. She has a history degree and I (as the blog title indicates) am a student of English. Our conversations can get pretty outlandish. We've even invented our own philosophy: "Observationalism."

So in a bubbly raspberry haze we feverishly jotted down a list of the most egregiously prefixed offenders. Of course by the time we began making up definitions for our new prefix-less words (and had drunk more than one bottle of fizzy stuff), our tempers had cooled considerably. Having turned down an invitation to a comedy club that evening, we commenced at making our own comedy at the dining room table.

Our criteria for these words was that they have prefixes that can usually be separated from a word, and leave that word standing (i.e. un-, dis-, a-), and that they are not words for which the prefix's necessity can be easily explained by etymology (i.e. infiltrate, disgust). We also thought about words that have unnecessary or redundant prefixes, so that the word means the same thing without the prefix, or at least should mean the same thing without it.

My especial (there's a good one) thanks to a fat copy of the 1966 Oxford English Dictionary of English Etymology .

Disgruntled -- This is one of the most common words that people make fun of, probably because of its frequent use in the appellation "disgruntled employee." But really, you can't say someone is "gruntled." And if disgruntled means dissatisfied and angry, then gruntled would mean satisfied and happy. It certainly doesn't sound like it would mean that, even if it could be used as a word on its own. However, if you look into the word's Middle English origins, it makes sense when applied to someone who has been "made to grumble." Yet still -- shouldn't it be engruntled? Like when someone makes you angry you become enraged.

Nonchalant -- This bastard word has been kicked back and forth between Anglos and Francos for nearly a milleninum. So in its current form in the English language, nonchalant is far from pedigreed. To make a long story short, we only borrowed the verb from French (chaloir) that means "to be roused or fired with hope, zeal, or anger" and added our own "non-" prefix to make an adjective that suggests a negation of these intense feelings. For some reason we never borrowed the verb on its own to express our Anglophonic fires of hope, zeal, or anger.

Abyss -- The prefix "a-" has four different uses, all installed in the English language at different periods. In the case of abyss, it is used in its fourth listed form, as a prefix of negation or privation. These two types of uses seem to me to be at odds, but I am no etymologist. Lets go back further to find out why I think "byss" should stand on its own. The "byss" part of "abyss" comes from the Greek buthos, meaning depth. So when you tack an "a-" onto it, it means something that has depth, usually an immesurable depth, which is what the first person who added the "a-" probably intended. So why isn't a hole with a bottom (or a shallow hole) called a "byss?"

There are many more "a-" words that seem to be unnecessarily prefixed. The main part of the word is where the meaning is carried, and the "a-" just serves to tell us, "Yup, that's the way it is." For instance, when something is drifting, it is adrift, when something is in the air, it is aloft. But there are many more examples where the word has no meaning without its "a-" partner, like amazed or aghast. These "a-" words seem like products of a language figuring itself out, and many of them are remnants of late Old English. Shouldn't we have simplified by now? Perhaps it is our periodic return to metered poetry that keeps them alive. They are prettier than their often one-syllabled roots.

Unravel -- This word has a redundant prefix of "un-," which usually means a negation or deprivation. The word ravel does stand on its own, but it means precisely the same thing that unravel means. This is a case where we tacked on the "un-" because it felt right, and it has stuck. So from now on, try to say that your sweater is "raveling," not "unraveling."

Unloose -- Another interesting redundant "un-" sitiuation shows itself in the word unloose. To unloose is the same as to loose. Unloose, however, sounds more intense, even though "un-" is usually a negation.

-- Another word made to sound more intense by adding an unnecesary prefix: "up-." In what other direction would one lift?

Disenfranchise -- The most logical and proper form of this word is disfranchise -- to take away franchise, i.e. civil rights etc. To enfranchise is to give these things. If you say "I've disenfranchised you," it's like you giveth and taketh away in the same breath! Perhaps if you are speaking of the very person who gave the rights who is now taking them away, the commonly used disenfranchise would be applicable. Otherwise, lets try to keep things simple and avoid double prefixing at all costs!

Uncouth -- I like this word's history, because it's been tampered with! It has existed since Old English as uncuth, and had the same meaning it does today. But in 1896 it was first used as couth to refer to someone with manners and refinement. This is called a back formation, and I think it is highly linguistically inappropriate! Doing this to a word is, in my opinion, like assigning our modern cultural values to Renaissance humanists or to early American slave owners. Though the philologists may disagree, it must be appreciated that the word couth doesn't even sound like what it means -- for it was never before meant to mean anything on its own.

Uncanny -- Canny is an archaic word meaning the same thing as uncanny. My amateur opinion of what happened here: the word faded out of common usage, and was reintroduced when "un-" began to be used as a negative that denotes some kind of evil. Uncanny, in a time when "un-" was a scary sort of prefix, probably would have sounded more frightening than canny. By the time uncanny was in use, canny, on its own, had come to have many more definitons that were entirely unrelated to the supernatural.

This is by no means a complete list. I am leaving out the more offensive unfixing we worked on, including finding a newly unfixed word that (to us) means masturbate.

The Oxford and a common usage errors website have given me much to think about. What pains me and excites me at the selfsame (another good one) instant, is how language takes on a mind of its own in the hands of a society, as it crosses borders, and as it spends centuries in the mouths and hands of poets.

What becomes "common usage" is oftentimes irreversible, whether it makes linguistic sense or not. Some folks think a hundred years of a usage is long enough to declare it a permanent alteration. I am more conservative -- I don't even consider Renaissance English usage to be all that archaic, much less the 18th and 19th century usages that decorate English novels, yet that have become passe in contemporary or post-modern English. I would argue that some of the stupidities of post-modern English are quite reversible, and that some of the rare beauties of middle and modern English could quite possibly be resurrected.

(For more in that vein, see "Talk Victorian To Me" below.)

1 comment:

  1. I swear, I just read the word Tucson and it makes me look to the calender to see how many days left until I see Michael again. Because I don't annoy him enough with random text messages :)

    I'm taking a linguistics course next semester. I've always been fascinated with language. There is actually a movie called The Linguists and it's about these two men who set out to record a sample of every language. But I digress.

    I love that you invented your own philosophy. Observationalism, it sounds rather interesting. I'd love to be a fly on that wall.

    I seriously shuddered when "Unamerican" entered the English language. Why, why, why? Why do we think we can create words just by slapping a prefix in front of it?

    I love gigantic dictionaries! Does that make me a total dork? My coach has this enormous dictionary that's about 4 inches thick and I just love it when he opens it up. I imagine that you've probably got a couple of beauties at home.

    I don't know why, but certain words conjure random images in my mind. Disgruntled has always made me think of a goat for one reason or another. I can't think of a single instance when I've used this word. It just never sounded...eloquent to me. I've always been partial to sullen or discontent.

    HA! I knew nonchalant would show up on your list. This word is probably one of the most over used words in the English language. I must admit, I am guilty of using it a little too much. It's a habit I'm desperate to break. Oddly enough, I hear "nonchalantly" more often then I hear "nonchalant".

    The English language is really fascinating. I don't think I had any idea where half these words had originally come from. I was glued to my computer screen just absorbing this information gleefully. I really hope that doesn't sound too creepy.

    Kind of a random aside here, I like the word uncanny. I've been reading about Freud's theory of the Uncanny lately for my writing. It has a kind of sinister sound to it, like you noted in your entry. It feels like a word that's meant to give you the chills.

    Unfixing dirtier words? I'm giggling just thinking about it. What writer doesn't have a good dirty sense of humor ;)

    I normally have a couple day-by-day calenders. Two are almost always a word-a-day and Common Errors of the English language. I'm surprised by some of the mistakes we make without even realizing it.

    I'd love to see a comeback of middle and modern English. I may not be as familiar with it as I'd like, but I like to think I know enough to be able to appreciate the beauty of the language.

    Another great post. It had such a longing to it.


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