Disgruntled, Uncouth, and Inept


During a recent class discussion about an article on delayed retirement benefits, a student and I came across the expression “disgruntled senior.” Normally, I try to balance between giving a quick and simple definition/synonym and more fully explaining where the word comes from. In this case, I was merely going to explain that it meant “dissatisfied” or “angry” when the student asked if it meant “not gruntled.” He was thinking about the words like practical-impractical, wise-unwise, able-disable. At this point, he needed a longer explanation. Namely, there is a class of English words that exists mainly in the negative, where the positive form has been lost over time.

Below is a list of these “lost positives”—a few dozen of them. If you remove the negative prefixes (un- im- in- dis- de- non-) from the word, it will sound funny to native speakers—because today we only know these words in the negative. For example, we don’t say “He has a maculate [= messy/dirty] apartment.” The opposite of an inept person is a competent person, not an “ept” person. However, there is the related meaning, “He has good apt -itude.”

See how many of these words you know. Most of them are adjectives, but a few are nouns or verbs. Enjoy!

Lost Positive Examples [Meanings, synonyms]
> an immaculate apartment [completely tidy/clean, no dirt]
> an inept person [incompetent]
> an unmistakable signature [with no doubt]
> an uncouth slob [ill-mannered, crude, unrefined]
> an inimitable character [unique, can’t be copied]
> his unkempt hair [messy, not combed]
> a disheveled appearance [messy, untidy]
> an unrequited love [not given back, unreciprocated]
> a disgruntled employee [angry, very dissatisfied]
> an inane subject [foolish, stupid]
> an inebriated man [drunken]
> to unfurl the flag [unfold, unroll]
> an unwieldy package [awkward, hard to carry]
> in disarray [mess, disorganization]
> an ungainly teenager [clumsy, awkward]
> be traveling incognito [disguised, unrecognizable]
> unbeknownst to me [not known, unaware]
> an untoward remark [unkind, unfriendly, impolite]
> an impeccable appearance [very tidy, without flaws]
> an unheard-of comment [said for the first time]
> her unswerving loyalty [steady, without deviation]
> an inevitable outcome [predetermined, unchangeable]
> an unflappable demeanor [patient, can’t make angry]
> their unbridled passion [uncontrolled, unrestrained]
> an unsung hero [not well known or praised]
> a nonplussed manager [surprised, confused, speechless]
> some disconcerting news [upsetting, disappointing]
> be left incommunicado [without means of communicating]
> be unnerved by the TV news [frightened, disturbed]
> their nonpareil CEO [unequaled, peerless, best]
> be purchased sight unseen [without inspection]
> an indomitable spirit [confident, fearless]
> an incorrigible liar [can’t be reformed or corrected]
> an incapacitated soldier [incapable of moving]
> an untold story [never told]
> an interminable lecture [endless]
> the unmitigated destruction [uncontrolled, unrelieved]
> an unruly crowd [without manners or controls]
> to have misgivings [doubts, reservations]
> an impromptu speech [unplanned, spur-of-the-moment]
> an impetuous boy [impulsive, emotional, passionate]
> some uncalled-for criticism [inappropriate, unwarranted]
> be disabused of that notion [relieved, freed from falsehood]
> an insipid comment [stupid]
> to debunk the myth [expose the falseness, correct]
> be dismayed by the results [discouraged, saddened]
> an unsavory character [distasteful, offensive]
> a misnomer [wrong name, bad identification]
> an inadvertent shot [unintended, mistaken]
> an inchoate plan [imperfect, incomplete, early-staged]
> an indefatigable teacher [tireless, energetic]
> an ungodly hour [outrageous, sinful]
> a noncommittal response [without revealing or promising]
> an unimpeachable source [completely reliable, blameless]
> an unprecedented decision [unknown, never happening before]
> an unconscionable act [immoral, unacceptable, unthinkable]
> an inscrutable face [mysterious, impossible to interpret]
> an invincible foe [impossible to defeat]

Note: The word discombobulate [meaning: to cause confusion, chaos, disarray] is a fun, informal word with no positive form (combobulate). However, it is an invented word (from the 1800s) and not officially a lost positive. People just like saying it because it SOUNDS confusing! You can also use it as an adjective: “I feel so discombobulated today.”

There was a very funny story written in the New Yorker which purposely used lost positives minus their negative prefixes in order to achieve a humorous effect.


Alan Headbloom

Alan advises Americans how to be global citizens and expats how to fit in to Michigan culture without annoying their native coworkers and clients. He also tweets and blogs at the intersection of language and culture. Over decades, he's traveled, studied, or lived on six continents, putting strange foods into his mouth and emitting strange sounds from it. His use of English, German, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Swedish, Hausa, and Japanese all improve with alcohol use. He gives invited public presentations on culture and unsolicited private advice on English grammar and usage; the latter isn't always appreciated. Visit his website for information on consulting, coaching, or speaking engagements.