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Mind the lexical gap, and the cranberry morpheme

'Unpaired' words can be a source of fun, but these 'lonely negatives' have a real place in language.

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Cranberry vines grow berries on Jeff LaFleur's Mayflower Cranberries farm, on August 24, 2012 in Plympton, Massachusetts. 'Unpaired' words, like the 'cran' of cranberry, can be a source of fun in language.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File

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When a linguistic issue so captures the public imagination that even the "Car Talk" guys are talking about it, it's time to pay heed.

They were having fun the other day with a New Yorker piece from 1994, "How I Met My Wife," by Jack Winter.

It's a textbook example of "unpaired" words. No, that's not a typo for "impaired." Unpaired words are those that seem to be missing a partner.

"It had been a rough day," Mr. Winter wrote, "so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way."

The story ends happily ever after, a tale of "requited" love. But it makes us ask, if we say "nonchalant," why isn't there a "chalant"? But there isn't, any more than there's a "gruntled" or a "consolate." (No, wait: Isn't that like an embassy? But I digress.)

Not long ago, Judith B. Herman had a chortlesome piece on Mental Floss about "12 Lonely Negative Words" whose partners either have faded away or never existed in the first place. There was, she reports, a delible along with indelible into the 18th century, for instance. Cessant had a brief run opposite to incessant about the same time. Dolent once played opposite to indolent in the latter's original sense of "painless." Nowadays indolent means lazy or disinclined to exertion, and dolent is no more. Disgust, though, never had an opposite gust.

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