Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

The Detachable 'Dis' Word

MY giant uncle, Richard Shunry, always spoke with a kind of loud authority, as if he were addressing the universe. But it was not always easy to understand what he said.

''I am mayed and gruntled. Today has been ruptively astrous. A day of combobulation from start to finish!''

About these ads

Although he was grinning broadly, a question remained: Had his day been a good 'un or a bad 'un?

''Now don't be dim,'' he boomed benevolently. ''Can't you see that it all has to do with 'dis'?''

Since I still looked disconcertingly discouraged, he sat me on his distinctive knee and explained.

'' 'Dis,' '' he thundered, ''is one of several much-used little prefixes like 'un' or 'ir' or 'in' -- commonplaces of your mother tongue, you see.''

''Dis'' he went on, ''has what one dictionary calls 'a privative, negative or reversing force relative to the base noun, verb, or adjective....' So if ''credit'' is a base noun, pre-fixing it with ''dis'' discredits it. Right?

''So now,'' he suggested, ''add a few 'dis-es' to what I said, and what have we got?''

I tried it.

About these ads

''I am dismayed and disgruntled. Today has been disruptively disastrous. A day of discombobulation from start to finish.''

Light dawned hastily. ''Ah,'' I said, ''I see. May I climb down now, O distinguished, if somewhat pedantic, Uncle Dick?''

He did not dissuade me.

''Reversing force,'' indeed.

What is odd is that to add ''dis'' to a word, say, ''dissatisfied'' or ''disbelieve'' sometimes leaves that ''base'' word (in these cases ''satisfied'' or ''believe'') intact to lead its own untroubled life, but other times seems to take over completely.

Take ''gruntled'' for instance. Presumably, it is either the past participle of the verb ''to gruntle'' (like ''to dangle'' becoming ''dangled'') or it is an adjective formed from the noun, a ''gruntle'' (like ''forest'' becoming ''forested.'')

I think it is most likely to be the second possibility, yet ''a gruntle'' is ''a pig's snout,'' so it would mean that if one were ''gruntled,'' one would be endowed with the nose of a pig -- and that is enough, surely, to make anyone feel ''disgruntled'' rather than ''gruntled.''

If, on the other hand, the base word ''gruntled'' comes from the verb ''to gruntle,'' then it still remains an enigma how ''disgruntled'' came to mean what it does mean, because ''to gruntle'' means either to ''to utter a little or low grunt'' or ''to grumble or complain.''

It would follow, logically, that ''disgruntled'' should mean ''to be deprived of one's little or low grunt-making capabilities'' or ''to be neither grumbling nor complaining.'' ''Disgruntled,'' however, means just the opposite of both these definitions. But then who expects logic where words are concerned?

I heard a new ''dis'' word on TV the other day. A town-planning official was asked why a hypermarket had been given building permission when its intrusion had put most of the small shops in the town out of business. ''We had decided, on balance,'' he replied, ''that the new hypermarket would be of great benefit. It seems now, however, that we did not quite gauge to what extent it might also be a disbenefit.''

The word tripped off his tongue as if it were in common usage -- and, for all I know, it may be -- among town planners. But I cannot find it in any of my word books.

It seems to me a word worth coining. I mean, it could be a useful kind of euphemism for politically-minded people, a useful way of making a complete disgrace sound like an act of discretion.

So -- ''disbenefit.'' Yes, here it is in print twice already. Disbenefit. Disbenefit. Spread it around. A good addition to some of those other mealy-mouthed ''dis'' words like ''disinformation'' (which to the apolitical means ''lying'') or ''disboscation'' (a disagreeable term in our green times, which means ''destruction of woods.'' It is not dissimilar to ''disforest,'' ''disenviron,'' ''disnest'' and ''dishome,'' all of which -- dissent if you must -- do exist.)

But some ''dis'' words are entirely above suspicion.

My favorite is ''disarming.''

I am not sure what Uncle Dick's is. Frankly, he's not very discriminating, though I wouldn't say it to his face.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.