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An unpaired word is one 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.
Unpaired words can be the result of one of the words falling out of popular usage, or can be created when only one word of a pair is borrowed from another language, in either case yielding an accidental gap, specifically a morphological gap. Other unpaired words were never part of a pair; their starting or ending phonemes, by accident, happen to match those of an existing morpheme, leading to a reinterpretation.
The classification of a word as "unpaired" can be problematic, as a word thought to be unattested might reappear in real-world usage or be created, for example, through humorous back-formation. In some cases a paired word does exist, but is quite rare or archaic (no longer in general use).
Such words – and particularly the back-formations, used as nonce words – find occasional use in wordplay, particularly light verse. There are a handful of notable examples in modern English – three poems and one short story.
Unpaired words in English
|Disambiguate||*Ambiguate||Not attested; derived from dis- + ambigu(ous) + -ate in the mid-20th century|
|Disconsolate||Consolate||Derived from the Latin consolatus; rarely used|
|Disgruntled||**Gruntled||Conscious jocular back-formation, circa 1938|
|Disheveled, Dishevelled||*Sheveled, *Shevelled||Not attested; from the Old French deschevelé|
|Feckless||Feckful||Rarely used antonym|
|Gormless (from gaumless)||Gaumy||Form "gormful" does not exist; form "gaumy" is rare and highly region-specific|
|Indomitable||Domitable||Rarely used antonym|
|Ineffable||Effable||Rarely used antonym|
|Inert||*Ert||From Latin iners, meaning "without skill".|
|Intrepid||Trepid||Rarely used antonym (form trepidatious, with redundant adjective ending, is uncommon but less rare)|
|Innocent||Nocent||Not an exact antonym; rarely used|
|Innocuous||Nocuous||Rarely used antonym (almost entirely replaced by descendant noxious)|
|Ruthless||Ruthful||Rarely used antonym|
|Uncouth||**Couth||From Old English cunnan meaning "well-known" or "familiar"; rarely used|
|Ungainly||Gainly||Rarely used antonym|
|Unkempt||Kempt||Rarely used antonym (replaced by passive participle combed as comb replaced kemb; meaning of combed did not undergo homologous extension to cover grooming and hygiene generally)|
|Unruly||Ruly||Rarely used antonym|
|Unstinting||Stinting||Rarely used antonym|
|Untoward||Toward||Not an antonym (untoward evolved from figurative alterations of "toward" involving deviation from norms; toward acquired no homologous figurative meanings)|
|Unwieldy||Wieldy||Rarely used antonym|
*Words not attested or very rare in English usage.
- Accidental gap
- Lexical gap
- Defective verb – other form of lexical gap
- Fossilization (linguistics)
- Cranberry morpheme
- Words with no opposite equivalent, posted by James Briggs on April 02, 2003 at The Phrase Finder
- Brev Is the Soul of Wit, Ben Schott, April 19, 2010, 6:08 am
- Parker, J. H. "The Mystery of The Vanished Positive" in Daily Mail, Annual for Boys and Girls, 1953, Ed. French, S. Daily Mail: London pp. 42–43 – article on the topic, ending in a short poem "A Very Descript Man" using humorous opposites of unpaired words
- Jack Winter, Shouts & Murmurs, “How I Met My Wife,” The New Yorker , July 25, 1994, p. 82 uses many unpaired words for humorous effect
- Semantic Enigmas: "I once read a nonsense poem that removed the apparently negative prefixes of words like 'inept', 'inert' and 'uncouth' to make new words: 'ept', 'ert' and 'couth'. I've searched for the poem since, but no luck. Can anyone help?", The Guardian – cites "Gloss" by David McCord and "A Dream of Couth" in The Game of Words by Willard R. Espy