Words That Can’t Exist Without Their Negative Prefixes

Prefixes and suffixes are handy little tools. With just two or three letters, they modify a word and create a new one. And if you understand their meanings, you can usually decipher the new word without much trouble.

For example, the prefix dis- makes a word negative. When combined with the word appear it creates the word disappear, the opposite of appear. Easy enough.

But this being the English language, words without prefixes and suffixes aren’t always that recognizable (we like our language how we like our relationships: needlessly complex). What is the opposite of a gruntle? Have you ever felt chalant? Are you full of reck? Nope? You’ll only recognize these strange terms when paired with their affixes. Read on for a few of these tricky, one-of-a-kind words.


When something is indelible, it leaves a mark that cannot be erased or removed. The word refers not only to physical marks, as in indelible ink, but to unforgettable memories or experiences. But was anything ever just delible? Not since the 1800s, when delible meant “capable of being removed.” By the 20th century, the lonely delible was effectively nonexistent, but its memory lives on … indelibly.


The queen has the most impeccable manners. Though in this example, impeccable means “faultless; flawless,” and appropriately refers to the dexterous manipulation of the royal butter knife, the word once meant “not liable to sin.” This is probably because peccable meant “liable to sin.” Both words are derived from the Latin peccare meaning “to sin,” and though some things might still be sinful, they’ve rarely been peccable since 1900.


I woke up in such a good mood, I was absolutely gruntled! This may be a lovely sentiment, but no one in the history of English has ever been gruntled, though many have been disgruntled in various ways. When people are disgruntled, they are “displeased and discontented; sulky or peevish.” The word is derived from the onomatopoetic sound a person makes when in a bad mood, a “grunt,” from the Old English grunnettan. In this case, the prefix dis- intensifies the medieval term of annoyance gruntle, so that to be disgruntled is to be extremely gruntled.


Unlike disgruntled, the dis- in disgust is as negative as they come. Disgust is a “feeling of nausea, strong distaste, or loathing.” The word is derived from the Latin gustare meaning “to taste,” and though it’s impossible to be simply gusted in English, it’s easy to do something with gusto—that is, with “zest, relish, and a hearty enjoyment as in eating or drinking.”


When people are nonchalant, they’re “casual, unconcerned, and indifferent.” They are often exasperatingly cool, and they are unmoved by situations that tend to rouse emotion in the hearts of passionate people. The word comes to English by way of the 18th-century French nonchaloir meaning “to lack warmth (of heart),” but the root calere is derived from the Latin meaning “to be warm.”


People look disheveled when their hair or appearance is “untidy or disarranged,” as if they’ve just rolled out of bed. It comes to us from the Old French descheveler literally meaning “to disarrange the hair.” The base term sheveled never entered the English vernacular alone, so next time you roll out of bed with disheveled hair, take heart, looking sheveled simply isn’t an option.


This is the only word on our list whose negative addition is a suffix and not a prefix. To be reckless is to be “utterly unconcerned with the consequences of an action,” which might make a reckful person (if reckful existed as a word in English) anal retentive. But in an apparent cultural move toward throwing caution to the wind, there hasn’t been much reck in common usage since 1810. Both words are derived from the Old English reccan meaning “to have care.”


This relatively young word debunk entered the vernacular as a neologism, invented by novelist William Woodward in his 1923 book Bunk. The main character in Woodward’s novel was known for “taking the ‘bunk’ (i.e., nonsense) out of things,” thus revealing a more honest truth. But the word is a derivation of an earlier Americanism, bunkum or insincere speechmaking that emerged in Congress in 1819 when representative Felix Walker made an inane speech on the behalf of Buncombe County, North Carolina.


A person you don’t recognize can be unbeknownst to you. The term means something (or someone) that is “unknown; unperceived.” The prefix un- combines with beknow and beknown (“known, acquainted”), which are now outdated terms. Beknown peaked in popularity around the late 1800s. It’s based on the Old English becnawan, “to know.” If you were around in 1898, like author Henry Coppée, you might write, “I was stable-boy in your grandfeyther’s time, miss, as is well beknown to you …”


To impinge upon something is to “encroach” or “infringe” upon it, hindering it in some way as one might impinge upon another’s rights by denying them. The word is derived from the Middle Latin pangere meaning “to fix, fasten” and reintegrated as “to unfix” with the addition of the negative prefix im-. But in the 1530s, the negative Latin form impingere grew to mean “to drive into, strike against,” a shade closer to our modern English definition.


To discombobulate is “to confuse or disconcert” as in They tried to discombobulate their attackers with a decoy. Like debunk, discombobulate is also an Americanism, invented around the 1830s as a fanciful new spin on words like discompose and discomfort, and although the prefix remained, the base is still rather discombobulating.


The word nonpareil combines the prefix non- and pareil, which hasn’t been used commonly since the 1600s. Pareil, from the Latin pariculus, means “equal.” While Spanish and Italian have parejo and parecchio, respectively, English has only retained the negative sense, nonpareil, or “having no equal.” And yes, it can also refer to a decoration for cakes and candies, if your mouth suddenly started to water. Because nothing compares to those sweet treats.


Ah, poor little nonplussed. Not only is it a word that can’t stand alone without its prefix non-, but it is also frequently used incorrectly. Derived from the Latin non plus, or “no more,” it means “perplexed” because “no more” can be done when something is at a confused standstill. But it’s easy to see why its meaning is unclear: there is no plussed to remind us of it. With all this room for error, the word has also casually come to mean its opposite: “unfazed.” Consider us nonplussed.

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