10 Unpaired Words That Actually Have Pairs
Don’t let anyone ever tell you movies can’t teach you anything. For decades, cinema has been asking us questions that have the ability to turn our worlds upside down, but there is one in particular that rises high above the rest.
I am, of course, talking about the modern Shakespeare retelling and pinnacle of the high school romance genre, 10 Things I Hate About You, which, in 2009, posed us the ultimate conundrum: ‘I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?’
Well, today is the day when we finally answer that question, as we take a dive into the world of unpaired words.
Whelm (verb) – ‘to engulf, submerge, or bury’ [Oxford English Dictionary].
In 10 Things, Bianca answers the above question with the equally iconic line ‘I think you can in Europe’, and, to be honest, she wasn’t wrong. The world whelmed actually comes from the Middle English whelm or whelve, ancient maritime verbs meaning ‘to capsize or overturn’. In the early 14th Century, it evolved into overwhelm to describe how boats were overwhelmed by waves, but its under-counterpart was actually only coined fairly recently, in the 1950s, as a facetious play on words.
Ruthful (adjective) – ‘full of compassion or pity’.
We often talk about someone being ruthless, but can you be ruthful? Both are derivatives of the Middle English word ruth, which meant sorrow or pity, and so, yes, if you are full of ruth, you can be ruthful. Surprisingly, its origins have no connection with the Book of Ruth from the Bible.
Feckful (adjective) – ‘powerful, effective, efficient, vigorous’.
Not to be confused with a similar term of Irish origin, the word feckless is often used to describe something that is ineffective. However, we rarely talk about something being feckful when it is an equally valid word meaning ‘effective’ that has simply fallen out of use. Both words stem from the 16th Century, when people in Scotland and Northern England began to pronounce the word ‘effect’ as feck. Similarly, the phrases ‘effect full’ and ‘effect less’ were in common usage at this time, and so it was with this dialectical influence that the words feckful and feckless came about.
Wieldy (adjective) – ‘easy controlled or handled’.
As is commonplace in the 21st Century, when people talk about using swords or shields they sometimes talk about how unwieldy they can be, and yet you never hear anyone talk about how wieldy things are. In this case, even though wieldy is itself a real word, it is a back-formation word, meaning that it only came about after unwieldy was in common use. They, of course, both stem from wield, and the Proto-Germanic term waldiz, meaning ‘manageable or powerful’.
Gruntled (adjective) – ‘pleased, satisfied, and contented’.
This is another word that was the result of back-formation, but unlike wieldy doesn’t really work quite as well. As we all know, disgruntled means ‘to be unhappy or dissatisfied with something’, but its literal etymological translation is ‘to grunt frequently and a lot’, as you might if you were unhappy or dissatisfied by something! In this case, however, the prefix of dis- is being used to add extra emphasis to the word’s meaning, and so without it gruntled literally translates as ‘to grunt frequently’, the opposite of how it has been defined since the 1930s
Mantle (verb) – ‘cloak or envelop’.
We talk about the earth’s mantle, mantelpieces, and taking up the mantle, but we rarely talk about mantle as an antonym of dismantle. To clarify after the dis- in disgruntled, in this case we are talking about a negative prefix that reverses the meaning of the root word following it. So, dismantle means to take apart, whereas mantle means ‘to cover or coat, and originates from the Latin mantēllum for ‘cloak’.
Ruly (adjective) – ‘amenable to discipline or control; well behaved’.
Some words have really obscure origins that continue to confound etymologists to this day, and then you have ruly. Meaning ‘well-behaved’, and serving as the rather forgotten antonym to unruly, ruly came about in the Middle Ages when they needed a term for someone who was cooperative, who would follow the rules, a rule follower if you will, a rule supporter…a rule-y! You know, people talk about how clever Shakespeare was to coin over 1700 words, but I’m beginning to think we give him too much credit.
Prepone (verb) – ‘bring [something] forward to an earlier date or time’.
This particular word may be familiar to some as it has been in common use in Indian English since the 1980s, but for the majority of English speakers it remains an unknown. Standing as the antonym for postpone, prepone simply means ‘to bring a date forward’. Interestingly, it actually dates as far back as the early 16th Century, but back then instead meant ‘to place in front of’.
Nocent (adjective) – ‘guilty; criminal’.
One might think that the reason this word fell out of fashion is because ‘innocent until proven nocent’ doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as ‘innocent until proven guilty’. In contrast, nocent is a Middle English word originating from the Latin nocere, which actually meant ‘to harm’. These days, therefore, it is not considered to be close enough in definition to be used as a common antonym for innocent.
I know what you’re thinking, ‘Of course flammable is a word, why is it on this list?’ To be honest, I’m being a bit sneaky here. Yes, flammable is a word, and, yes, people do often consider it to be the pair of inflammable, but those people would be wrong because they actually both mean ‘combustible or burnable’. These days, you’re more likely to see flammable being used, but it was inflammable that actually came first, originating from the Latin inflammare, ‘to set on fire’. However, by the early 20th Century, it became clear that people were getting confused. So, to prevent people putting themselves in danger by assuming something labelled inflammable is unlikely to catch fire, safety warnings now tend to use the terms non-flammable or fireproof.
Flammable (adjective) – ‘easily set on fire’.
Inflammable (adjective) – ‘easily set on fire’.