Our Many Orphaned Negatives: A Reason to Despair

Ann’s lament about Raggedy Ann and Andy being forgotten but not gone is lamentable for sure, but what about those tragically forgotten counterparts to our orphaned negatives? Surely they deserve some of our lament as well.

Susie Dent: British lexicographer, etymologist, and media personality

To tell the truth, I had never even heard of “orphaned negatives” until my cycling buddy Larry sent me a link to a recent article in the Guardian by Susie Dent.  It opened my eyes to a troubling linguistic issue about which few of us are aware. Is the growing number of these “orphans” the harbinger of a looming crisis of an overload of negativity in our culture?

Before I get too far into into my lament, let’s be sure we’re on the same page about what an “orphaned negative” is. Wikipedia, tells us that it is a type of “unpaired word.” That is, it is a word that

according to the usual rules of the language, would appear to have a related word but does not. Such words usually have a prefix or suffix that would imply that there is an antonym, with the prefix or suffix being absent or opposite. If the prefix or suffix is negative, such as ‘dis-‘ or -‘less’, the word can be called an orphaned negative.

Susie Dent feels sufficiently threatened by the plethora of orphaned negatives in our language that she is mounting a linguistic campaign to counteract this trend, or so she says:

I’m campaigning for the revival of the positive words that have been lost from our language. And none more so than the counterparts to what linguists call ‘orphaned negatives’, or words that have lost their better half.

These are the unkempts, uncouths, underwhelmeds and nonplusseds of this world, those that have lost their mojo and linger on the bad or sad side of life. As it turns out, there are hundreds of them.

Dent suggests that the 1994 New Yorker piece by Jack Winter captures the spirit of her positive word revival and cites this tidbit from his article:

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 . . . I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it . . . Fortunately, the embarrassment that my maculate appearance might cause was evitable. There were two ways about it, but the chances that someone as flappable as I would be ept enough to become persona grata or a sung hero were slim.’

Click here to see this full size.

As a modest contribution to Susie Dent’s revival I combed through Winter’s article and came up with the below list of “lost positives” . Feel free to use any of them when an opportunity to quell negativity arises.

Some of the “lost” counterparts to orphaned negatives I found in Jack Winter’s New Yorker piece.

I’m sure you’re wondering why I have yet to mention the orphaned negative with which I am most obsessed – disgust. Despite my recent pronouncement that I was done talking about disgust, how can I overlook what I feel could be the poster child for orphan negatives?

According to a BBC Magazine article, “[disgust] came into English in 1601 from the Old French desgouster meaning distaste, loathe or dislike, in the sense of giving a bad taste to one’s mouth.” But it has progressed well beyond our literal taste buds and today means much more. As Susie Dent puts it:

Every day on social media people condemn each other for disgusting behaviour or attitudes. How much nicer would it be if we were all a bit more ‘gusting’? [Editor’s note: Dent confesses that the term “gusting” never existed, but it should have].

On a happier note, Dent’s crusade to reintroduce more positive words into our lexicon has led her to repeatedly lobby for one particular word:

But one English word surely stands above all others from the corners of the dictionary. I mention it all the time, because I’m determined to bring it back. Or bring it anywhere in fact, for it never really enjoyed more than a day in the sun. “Respair” has just one record next to it in the Oxford English Dictionary, from 1525, but its definition is sublime. Respair is fresh hope; a recovery from despair. May 2022 finally be its moment.

So here’s to a little respair in all of our lives. May we become gruntled, jected, and mayed!

Post Script: Beyond her etymological expertise, Susie Dent is a fan of Wordle, the addictive word game that our son Travis introduced to us. If you haven’t tried it don’t despair, you can find it here.

See Susie Dent’s Wordle strategy.

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