My sister and I are great fans of the British political comedy series Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister. A joke from the episode “The Greasy Pole” that she recently reminded me about:
Joan Littler: What does “inert” mean?
Sir Humphrey: Well it means it’s not… ert.
Bernard: [to himself] Wouldn’t ert a fly.
I’ve been keeping a little list of words like “inert”, that appear to be a negative form, but whose positive partners aren’t in common use. I’m not sure if there’s already a term for them, but I’d like to call them “lonely negatives”. They’re a curious crowd; here I dip into an etymological dictionary (Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, ed. T. F. Hoad) and attempt to make a taxonomy of these rogues….
Positive form obsolete
Immaculate – The word maculate meaning “spotted” is attested from the 15th century, but now archaic, originally from Latin maculatus.
Reckless – Without reck – “taking care, concern” – a word of Germanic origin.
Feckless – From Scottish feck, which is a variant of effect.
Disgruntled – The dis- is acting as an intensifier for gruntled – “to grunt, complain”. If one compares complaining to grunting (the noise made by pigs), it’s not difficult to guess one’s attitude to the persons complaining!
Uncouth – This word is actually related to uncanny below, because both are derived from the same root as can in the sense of “to know” (e.g. “He’s a canny lad”). Uncouth used to mean simply “unknown” or “unfamiliar”, but now means “unrefined”.
Positive form not borrowed
Ineffable, Inert, Indignant – From Latin ineffabilis, iners, and indignans respectively.
Disheveled – Originally meaning “without a head dress”, from Old French chevel, “hair”.
Meanings have changed
Disaffected – Meaning roughly “dissatisfied” or “discontented”, from the obsolete meaning of affected – “liked, with affection for”. Today, to affect something is to pretend to have a certain attitude or feeling, so both forms have taken on negative connotations.
Uncanny – To be canny is to be clever, knowing, but uncanny today usually refers to something that is strange or mysterious, with hints of the supernatural. However, uncanny used to mean “malicious”, “careless”, or “unsafe”, and the current-day meaning is relatively late.
Antimacassar – A covering for the back of a chair to protect it from grease stains from the hair. There was a hair product in the 19th century called “Macassar”, because it supposedly contained ingredients from that place on the island of Celebes (now Sulawesi). So this word comes from a brand name that had become a generic name (like how “Q-tips” can refer to any cotton bud product).