The mysterious case of the Lost Positive

Sky writingSetting the scene: The staffroom of an English teaching school in Japan. It is morning. A young Scots teacher is fiddling with papers. It is a matter of minutes before our classes  start when an Australian male colleague enters. “You are looking very kempt this morning,” I say, pointing to the tie. This is so far from his usual ruffled appearance, I am shocked – almost to the core.

“What did you call me?”man-158378_640

“Kempt.” I repeat.

“There’s no such word,” he snorts, adjusting the tie.

“There is so,” two of us parrot. I grin at The Scotsman.

The bell rings for changeover. I pick up my folder. “An apology after class will do,” I say to The Australian, dropping a dictionary in front of him.

Back home, some months later, I repeat this anecdote to my academic Kiwi husband, who reacts just like The Australian. Now I’m cross. That evening, as luck would have it, we are having dinner with his English friend, also an academic. I retell my anecdote, laughing in advance, when shockingly, the friend repeats what The Australian and Kiwi have –  “There is no such word.”

I wagged my finger at the pair of them, and say that I expect an apology when I return from the bathroom. They admitted that kempt was in the Oxford English Dictionary. It was fact. Proof that kempt was alive. And doing well, as far as I was concerned. Until I repeated the anecdote for a third time many years later, to our friend Barry, a teacher of English Literature, who was staying with us.

“Ah ha!” he says. “A Lost Positive.” He is really happy. Chuckling even. “I’ve never heard of a Lost Positive,” I say, sounding awfully like The Australian.

It transpires that a colleague of his was rather keen on these Lost Positives. Lost Positives  are, Barry explained, related to words with negative prefixes, but in their positive form, without the prefix, have ceased to be a word in use. Then Barry says that he had put together a short piece for the said friend containing several Lost Positives. I was impressed. So I asked asked him if he could please write something for my blogpost. He obliged…

Barry Coley solves the mystery of the Lost Positive:two-figures-of-evangalists-writing-e1524708836851.jpg

Words seemingly used only in a negative sense, such as inert, unkempt and inebriated, prompt the question: what has happened to the positive form? Did ert, kempt and ebriated once exist? Were they used to mean lively, tidy and sober? I was alerted to this quirk of the English language by a colleague, a maths teacher. When I gave a speech at his retirement I included an attempt at some verses incorporating lost positives:

                      In class he is both ept and ert,

                      More or less kempt in his clean check shirt;

                      He’s shevelled and couth and mostly, he’s ane –

                      His jokes make you laugh but it can be a strain.

                      Retirement beckons, he must be pecunious…

However, the project was abandoned at this point. Such language is difficult for an audience to follow. As well as that, I was running out of inspiration – there is not a huge number of such words – and some apparent lost positives are not the genuine species. Using shevelled, for example, was a complete mistake – it is not the opposite of dishevelled.

Nor, strictly is gruntled the opposite, or positive, for disgruntled – but P.G. Wodehouse used it as such, cleverly and humorously, in The Code of the Woosters, published in 1938. We all know what disgruntled means, but back in 1500 to disgruntle (verb) meant to grunt — intensively (a rare meaning of ‘dis-’), and repetitively (the obsolete suffix ‘-le’ adds this characteristic). Because ‘dis-‘ usually means not, disgruntled looks like a negative, and Wodehouse’s back-formation is easily appreciated. Gruntled thus found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.

20180426_135752Nonplussed looks like a good target for lost positive hunters but, alas, plussed in the sense of understanding, knowing, has never existed. More disturbingly, nonplussed meaning not disturbed or affected, virtually the opposite of its regular meaning, perplexed, has crept into common usage. It has even been spotted in reputable journals such as The Times and The New York Times.  Examples of such usage in print persuade the highest authorities such as the O.E.D. that this is a legitimate meaning. So we get stuck with a word that can mean its opposite. The most perfect example of this is cleave which most commonly means cut or divide, but also has another meaning, cling, be as one. The latter meaning is found in traditional marriage services: a man and his wife should cleave together. 

Returning to the examples mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, I find further trouble. The origins of inert and inept relate to Latin negations of art and apt, both currently used, not lost – my verses do not seem to contain many actual lost positives! However, kempt is a definite qualifier: it existed in Old English, equating to combed, but was rarely found in writing after 1500, while the negative, unkempt became more widely used. Were people more scruffy? Who knows. Kempt is also making a comeback via the whimsical back-formation we saw in gruntled. Couth has a similar history. So I did find at least two lost positives. And pecunious, meaning wealthy, was used positively by William Langland, the fourteenth century poet. So that is another genuine example, not widely used in current times.  With inane, we come up empty – it is derived from a Latin word meaning empty, it is not a negative. There is a Scots dialect word, ane, meaning one (the number). But that, I think, is no relation.

Then there are the troubles with ebriation. Just when you thought it could mean sober, it actually means drunk. The prefix, in-, is an intensifier here, not a negative. This is a problem with English words, they sometimes mean the opposite of what you think. Which can be the source of humour. Try looking at John Cleese’s ‘Headmaster’ (Podcast 34) where he exploits the apparent negative meaning of ‘invaluable’; have a laugh, and appreciate the wonderful, eclectic, flexible, creative, not always consistent, organic being that is the English language.

Who would have thought! Thank you Barry for the enlightenment.

2 thoughts on “The mysterious case of the Lost Positive

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