Headbloom Blog

Disgruntled, Uncouth, and Inept

During a recent class discussion about an article on delayed retirement benefits, we 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