Gruntled, Kempt, and Whelmed
A few weeks ago on this blog, we discussed the origins of the word disheveled and why you can’t properly be heveled. But disheveled is not the only English word with a mysterious root affixed to a common prefix. Dishabille, like disheveled, came into English from French. The French word déshabillé is from the past participle of déshabiller, “to undress.” In the case of dishabille, the word entered English whole, and its French root habiller, “to clothe,” did not make the language jump.
While some roots don’t cross over from their language of origin, others fall out of use. In Modern English you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but being whelmed is out of style. Whelm is entered in the American Heritage Dictionary with an Archaic label, meaning this sense is no longer in current use in English. It means to cover with water or to submerge, and it comes from the Middle English whelmen, “to overturn,” which is derived from Old English hwelfan, “to cover over.”
Disgruntle is another example of a common prefix affixed to a root that is not in use. Gruntle is from the Middle English gruntelen, which is a form of the verb grunten, “to grunt.” Given this origin, one might guess that disgruntled would mean “not grunting” and by extension, not upset (as grunts are typically noises of discontent). However, the dis- here is used as an intensive, yielding disgruntle’s common meaning today, “to make discontented.”
In some cases with well-known prefixes appearing before unfamiliar roots, the root develops a life of its own through a process known as back-formation. Back-formation is when a new word is created by the removal of an affix (or sometimes, by the removal of something mistakenly thought to be an affix) from an existing word. Couth from uncouth and kempt from unkempt are two examples of this. Couth (spelled cūth) was an Old English word while kempt (spelled kembed) was a Middle English word. Both fell into disuse, only to reemerge in Modern English through back-formation.
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