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Words That Never Were

My husband and I were sitting at the dinner table a few days ago, he chewing discontentedly on the vegan meat I had served him. We were discussing the news. An item that morning had reported that in some American states, the authorities, regarding gender as something one chooses, rather than as a fact of biology, had authorized doctors to give puberty-inhibiting hormones to young children upon request.

"That's insane," said my dinner companion. "It's physically and emotionally dangerous to stop a child from becoming pubert."

There was dead silence for a second or so, and then we looked at each other quizzically and began to giggle. In all innocence (and perhaps distracted by the vegan meat) he had used a perfectly reasonable adjective that never was. Now of course there is an adjective for the noun 'puberty' – pubescent. It goes nicely with the noun 'pubescence.' But 'pubert' makes so much more sense as the adjectival partner for 'puberty.' It's neater, more direct.

This reminded me of another meal, many years ago, that I shared with a friend who had come from a difficult background.

"When I was little," he said, wolfing down his non-vegan meat, "I was malnutreated." An excellent verb that never was. (I am not a scientist, but it is possible that if a child is severely malnutreated, he or she may not become pubert.)

Why aren't these actual, accepted words? The reason they work grammatically, even if they seem silly, is that they follow the structures of word forms. Maturity – mature. Insanity – insane. Puberty – pubert. Inspiration – inspire. Misunderstanding – misunderstand. Malnutrition – uh – malnutreat.

But no. Why? Why is there such an apparent mismatch between some nouns, adjectives

and verbs that spring from the same root?

I am unable to find a complete explanation for this, but perhaps part of the explanation comes from the fact that English has borrowed and adapted words from many other languages. Perhaps what appear to be mismatches find their origins in the structures of German, Sanskrit, Russian, Greek, Latin, French, Yiddish or Chinese (we have borrowed from all of those, and many more). An Encyclopedia Britannica entry on the nature of the English language calls English an 'open language,' allowing: "both free admission of words from other languages and the ready creation of compounds and derivatives. English adopts (without change) or adapts (with slight change) any word really needed to name some new object or to denote some new process. Words from more than 350 languages have entered English in this way."

And while we're on the topic of words that never were, what about all those negatives that have no positive? The prefixes dis, un, im, in, il, ir, a, de, mis and dys, as well as the obvious non, all create negatives. But negatives of what? What if there is no positive?

If a disheveled, disgruntled, unruly person whom others regard with disdain or even disgust, cleaned him or herself up and started behaving nicely, would s/he then be sheveled, gruntled and ruly? Would others then regard this person with gust or dain? (Certainly society should be indefatigable in its desire to help achieve this transformation, but why not simply be infatigable? One negative prefix seems like enough to make the point.)

If some of us are dismayed by these quirks of language, are others, the unbothered among us, simply mayed?

There actually are explanations for most of these 'lonely negatives.' 'Incessant,' 'impeccable' and 'indelible,' for instance, did, in the mists of history, have the brief, positive partners of 'cessant,' 'peccable' and 'delible,' but these did not survive, whereas their negatives did.

"Disgruntled," the Oxford Dictionary tells us, "is a ringer. This time the prefix 'dis' is not a negative, but an intensifier. If you’re disgruntled you’re extremely gruntled. And what, pray tell, does it mean to be gruntled? 'Gruntle' was a diminutive of 'grunt,' dating from around 1400, meaning 'to utter a little or low grunt.' Later it came to mean 'to grumble or complain."

Are we allowed to make up these kinds of words, since they do exist in a kind of shadow world of rules and structures? We understand them, more or less, when we hear them, because they are spawned from existing words, though they may make us titter with grammatical amusement.

As we have discussed in this blog, language changes. We all know that language is not inert; it is, well, ert.

All the cool kids are doing it, changing standards of pronoun use, being profligate with apostrophes. Why not us? I say, coin away. If there is no adjective to match a noun, or no verb, spawn one! If one doesn’t like the available options, make others. If there is no positive to match a negative, make one (just take off the prefix). Language is alive, and we are its animators.

Let's be more hibited, more sipid, in our language spawning, justifying our creativity by citing grammatical structures.

If any among you did not enjoy this post, please, feel free to gruntle.

Till next time.

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2 comentários

18 de abr. de 2021

your essay is a treat,a hoot and a scream all in one omelet=omelette=ommelette

your love of the language is like my love of birds and flowers and the odd human.thanks -it was fun!

Respondendo a

What a poetic comment! Thanks.

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