Thursday, 22 November 2007

Unopposed words

Unopposed words, by which I mean those words which would on cursory inspection appear to have an opposite but which actually do not, are a source of amusement for me. For an example, consider the word dismantle. By comparison to other words beginning with dis-, e.g. disassemble, disappear, you might expect its opposite to be remantle. But it isn't. And, whilst I might be able to assemble a bookcase, or appear at a particular location, I cannot for the life of me mantle flatpack furniture, however extensive my experience with a screwdriver and hammer.

I've often thought that our language makes it difficult for things to go well, and stacks the odds against us. Why, for example, can someone be inept but not ept? Why can't I be couth, and am instead constrained by language to be uncouth? Why can't I be prostrained instead of constrained? My work can be awful but not awless. I might get distraught at a bereavement, but will never be traught at a birth. You might think my comments are inane, but here again, they are forced into inanity, however much I would like to write ane words, it is impossible for me to achieve this. And I shall never be gormful. And nor shall you.

I was thinking about these unopposed words the other day, and started making a list of examples. It was extensive. I could think of many words portraying negative concepts which did not have a positive counterpart, but very few which were the other way around. In fact, I found only one. Wonderful...

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Postscript

On reflection, there are many unopposed words which have positive connotations. Hurrah for freedom of speech, and long may it continue.

12 comments:

Pixie said...

You just think too much!
Get 3 G&T's down you and the world will be full of whatever words you want. You might not make any sense, but what's that got to do with anything!!
pxx

Casdok said...

Was this before or after beer??! x

But Why? said...

Pixie,
Are you seriously suggesting that my 'problem' of thinking utter rubbish with alarming frequency should be adressed through over-consumption of alcoholic beverages? xx

Casdok,
Before. Totally sober. Despite any impression to the contrary, I am usually fairly sober. Seven years of being a student was opportunity enough to binge drink, and the messy, unpleasant or expensive after-effects rather put me off too many repeat performances! xx

Andrew F said...

Interestingly, 'ruth' (as in ruthless) is a word:

http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ruth

You learn something every day.

But Why? said...

Andrew F,
So it is. Well, I never. Fancy that. I wonder whether "bash" is a noun? (I presume it is the noun from which bashful is derived.)

Let me check...

Hmm. Seems that bashful is derived from the verb abash: to destroy the self-confidence, poise, or self-possession of; disconcert; make ashamed or embarrassed. I suppose "bash" is now used colloquially as a verb with the same meaning. And as a noun with a completely unrelated meaning.

What a silly language we speak.

KindaBlue said...

Silly? Why, my dear Doctor, English is the pinnacle of linguistic evolution. It represents the culmination of multifarious socio-cultural interactions, interceding as the fulcrum of homo sapien civilisation, and culminating in its ecumenical implementation as the inter-societal lingua franca.

Actually, now that you mention it...

But Why? said...

Kindablue,
Quite. The correct use and skilled abuse of the English language takes years of practice. I shall no doubt be trying right up to my death to reconcile myself with a language which allows a sentence such as, "...the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put" to be a correct construction. I must say that I am mightly glad that, being as an ex-scientist, people tend to assume I should be illiterate and are roundly pleased whenever I begin a sentence with a capital letter and end it with a full stop.

Andrew F said...

You should take a look at this book I've been reading. I think you'd like it:

http://www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/ASIN/0099445352

I can lend it if you want - done with it for the mo.

Gary said...

In which case I like to think of myself as a couth person, full of couth I am.

If I wasn't then we'd have to use the "un" version of the word.

But Why? said...

Andrew F,
Do you think that would help? I might disappear into a little world of my own. I already thought myself into a tizzy today over a pile of agenda documents and the correct noun for the plural documents.

Gary,
And I am sure as a good son of Yorkshire you are as couth to the very core of your being as it is possible to be.

Maddy said...

I certainly have my moments when it comes to the English language but I've had to lower my standards lately.
Cheers

But Why? said...

Maddy,
I've just returned from a trip to your place. Yes, I quite see what you mean. Whoever decided that two such different things as a diary and a bout of diarrhoea should sound so similar?

I'm beginning to think less that English is a silly language and veering towards a conspiracy theory. I believe the gods were have a laugh the day they planted English in our minds and mouths. I'm sure they enjoy watching the frustration and confusion it causes.