Linguistic Asymmetries


Have you ever noticed that, while some words which take a prefix seem to form nice pairings with opposite meaning polarity (tie/untie, compliance/noncompliance, tasteful/distasteful), other pairs don’t work this way?

For example, there is nonplussed, but not plussed, insipid, but not sipid. A short piece in the New Yorker magazine, How I Met My Wife (Jack Winter, The New Yorker, July 25, 1994) exploits these missing pair members very cleverly and humorously.

Consider the case of nonplussed.  The original sense from Latin non plus was ‘not more’, i.e., nothing further could be added. In modern English the meaning conveys a state of bewilderment, confusion to the point of not being able to react.  However, more recently in American colloquial usage, the meaning has flipped polarity and refers to a state of being unperturbed, unconcerned.  The prefix non appears to have realigned with the standard non prefix usage as in nonconformist, nonvolatile. But, will we start hearing and reading plussed (meaning confused, bewildered, flustered)?

?? I was so plussed at their reaction to his suggestion, but he was totally nonplussed.

Disgruntled is another curious case.  It is apparently descended from a Middle English dialect form for ‘little grunt’ coupled with an intensifier prefix dis- meaning ‘very’, conveying the modern meaning of  ‘angry, dissatisfied’.   Note the unusual sense of the prefix in this case, in contrast to the frequent use of dis-  to express a reversal, e.g., disenchanted, disarrayed, disinclined.  The more prevalent meaning of dis- probably contributed to the back-formation gruntled (satisfied, content) in the 1930s.  But the back-formation remains on the sidelines as a humorous construct.

More recently I’ve been seeing many references to old school, as in ‘I guess I’m just old school and prefer the movie Hackers to The Social Network.’  In fact the expression old school is showing up frequently on Twitter where people are expressing their outlook on specific new technologies.  But is anyone seeing the expression new school?  I’d love to find examples, if so.  It doesn’t seem to have formed a contrastive pair yet with old school.

There’s also nonstarter.  Nonstarter has a current widespread metaphoric use meaning ‘an unsuccessful person or effort’. However, the  potential partner starter does not yet convey the metaphoric sense of ‘a successful person or effort’. Starter requires a qualifier to convey such meaning, e.g., slow starter, self starter.

And what’s been going on with discombobulate? It means ‘to confuse or disconcert’.  No one is saying or writing combobulate as an alternative, but we are starting to see recombobulation area in airports — you know, that place the TSA deposits you with your bins of personal effects that you must then reassemble:  shoes, belts, laptops, keys, phone, liquids and the like.  It’s as though one couldn’t be in a neutral state of composure, i.e.,  combobulation, one can only get reassembled (unconfused) after being disrupted, unsettled. Yep. Seems to reflect the reality of going through airport security. 🙂

Finally, consider antibiotic, a word which came into major usage with the appearance of the modern wonder drugs such as penicillin. The word is from Greek biotikos (pertaining to life) with the prefix anti- (opposed, against).  In very recent years the term probiotic has taken off, people are taking probiotics for their health, which usually refers to the ingestion of microorganisms that are beneficial to digestion.  The pair antibiotic/probiotic forms a semantic symmetry at an abstract level where the former is targeting the destruction of certain life forms, and the latter is targeting the nurturing of certain life forms (gut bacteria).

What about other languages?  Got some modern pairs in the making or some funny back-formations?  Please share them!

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This entry was posted in etymology, language change, Semantics, Word Formation, Word Usage and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Linguistic Asymmetries

  1. bbear says:

    Older readers may remember the antimacassar, a little doily that once adorned the tops of high-backed upholstered chairs (and sometimes, by extension, the arms too), so called because it was intended to protect the fabric from Macassar oil, which people used on their hair.

    • achouston says:

      That’s an interesting pair, BBear! I think I’ve seen that look in old movies and 1930s New Yorker cartoons – guys with the ‘wet look’ — smooth, shiny hair with a part.

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