Positive vs Negative, or When Negative Wins


I have to tell you right off… this isn’t a post about attitude adjustments, or mean people taking over the world. Nope, nothing quite so deep for today. This is about a little pet peeve of mine. Allow me to share a story.

Each night before going to bed, we watch an episode of M*A*S*H. Yeah, the show from the late 70s/early 80s with Hawkeye and Hotlips and the whole gang. (In fact, we do this with such regularity that the dog recognizes the ending credits music as a sign that it’s time to go to bed. But I digress.) One such episode centers around two plot points: one) it’s blazing hot in Korea, and two) they’ve been sent placebos (sugar pills) in place of another needed medicine. Hawkeye and BJ convince Klinger that the sugar pills are an experimental drug to regulate body temperature, and he buys it. They are are sitting there hot, sweaty, miserable and in comes Kilinger fresh as a daisy. BJ’s response is to say, “Look at him. He’s sheveled!” I love this because it’s clever, and grammar jokes make me giggle. But the reason it’s clever is that “sheveled” isn’t a word. It ONLY exists in a negative form: disheveled.

And thus began my quest. I’ve been collecting words for a while now that only have a negative form. How is that possible? How can you say something is “dis-” or “un-” or “-less” without having something that you’re actually “dis-” or “un-” or “-less”? Now I have been pleasantly surprised to discover that some of the words I’ve collected actually DO have positive forms, but they’ve fallen into such disuse I didn’t even know they were words. Interesting that the negative form would survive and the thing it is negating did not. Anyway… without further ado. Here is my small collection of bothersome words.

  • Disgruntled (when was the last time you heard of a gruntled employee?)
  • Ruthless (unless you’re describing a guy who divorced a lady named Ruth, no positive form here.)
  • Unkempt (I found a source that says you CAN use kempt, but nothing to back it up, even within the same source.)
  • Uncouth (“couth” actually is a synonym for “sophisticated,” but when is the last time you heard it used??)
  • Uncanny (nothing to add here. Now that IS uncanny!)
  • Inclement (again, here is one where you can say “clement” weather. But nobody does. Just the negative.)
  • Unfurl (you hardly ever read about a flag being furled.)

So that’s it. My little list of collected negativisms. And what is my point? I don’t really have one. I just like grammar and words and interesting bits. Do you have any to add to the list? Or any strange pet peeves like this? Share! 🙂

4 thoughts on “Positive vs Negative, or When Negative Wins”

  1. interesting!
    we can say “canny” but it has an entirely different meaning — weird.

    and then there’s misapprehension — the secondary meaning of apprehension really seems to have fallen out of usage.

    language is funny, how it changes according to common usage (and that scares me a little, these days.)


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