Unpaired word

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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.[1] 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. If the prefix or suffix is negative, such as 'dis-' or -'less', the word can be called an orphaned negative.[2]

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.

In English[edit]

Word Paired word(s) Notes on paired word
Disambiguate Ambiguate[a] Not attested. Disambiguate derives from dis- + ambigu(ous) + -ate in the mid-20th century
Discomfit Comfit Not an antonym. Comfit (noun) is a candy comprising a sugar-coated nut or fruit. From Old French confit, from Latin confectum meaning "put together". Discomfit probably includes some conflation with discomfort.
Disgruntle Gruntle[b] Humorous back-formation, circa 1938.
Disgusting Gusting From Latin gustāre meaning to taste; antonym form appeared in Old French desgouster
Disheveled, Dishevelled Sheveled,[a] Shevelled[a] Not attested. Disheveled is from Old French deschevelé.
Exasperate Asperate Synonym. To make rough, a similar connotation to exasperate's secondary meaning of increasing the intensity of pain.
Feckless Feckful Used in Scottish English[3]
Gormless Gormful Not attested. Gormless derives from gaumless, whose antonym gaumy is rare and highly region-specific.
Improvisation Provisation Not attested, as something created with forethought.
Impulsive Pulsive Rare. Means "tending to compel; compulsory".
Incorrigible Corrigible Rare. Typically describes the abstract, such as a theory, rather than a person.[citation needed]
Indomitable Domitable Rare
Ineffable Effable Rare
Inert Ert[a] Not attested. Inert is from Latin iners, meaning "without skill".
Inflammable Flammable Synonym. From Latin flammare meaning "to catch fire". Inflammable is from Latin inflammare meaning "to cause to catch fire". Antonym is nonflammable.[4]
Innocent Nocent Rare. Means "harmful".
Innocuous Nocuous Uncommon[5]
Irritate Ritate Not attested
Nonchalant Chalant Not attested
Noncommittal Committal Not an antonym. Committal (noun) means "the process of sending someone to a mental institution".[6]
Nonplussed Plussed[b] Not attested. Nonplussed is from Latin non plus, meaning "no more".[7]
Nonsensical Sensical Rare. Nonsensical is derived from nonsense.[8]
Off-putting Putting Not antonyms.
Overwhelm Whelm Means "to turn upside down" or "to overcome in thought or feeling". May mean "to moderately impress" in recent usage.[9] From Middle English whelmen meaning "to turn over".[10]
Postpone Prepone Used in Indian English[11]
Rebuttal Buttal Not attested
Reckless Reckful Not attested
Ruthless Ruthful Rare. Means "full of or causing sorrow".[12]
Uncouth Couth[b] Rare. From Old English cunnan meaning "well-known" or "familiar".
Underwhelm Whelm See overwhelm
Ungainly Gainly Rare
Unkempt Kempt Rare. Kempt was replaced by passive participle combed as comb replaced kemb. While unkempt extended to grooming and hygiene generally, combed did not undergo the same extension. Appears in the form well-kempt.
Unruly Ruly Rare
Unscathed Scathed Rare
Unstinting Stinting Rare
Untoward Toward Not an antonym. Untoward evolved from figurative alterations of toward involving deviation from norms; toward acquired no similar figurative meanings.
Unwieldy Wieldy Rare

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Words not attested or very rare in English usage.
  2. ^ a b c Jocular or facetious coinages as intentional back-formation.


  1. ^ Mind Your Words Master the Art of Learning and Teaching Vocabulary. Injeeli, Prudent. Trafford on Demand Pub. 2013. ISBN 978-1-4669-9131-6. OCLC 850242046.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  2. ^ "Orphaned negative | Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable - Credo Reference". search.credoreference.com. Retrieved 2021-10-05.
  3. ^ "Feckful". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
  4. ^ "Flammable vs. Inflammable". Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 12, 2020.
  5. ^ "Nocuous". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
  6. ^ "Committal". Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
  7. ^ "What's Going On With 'Nonplussed'?". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
  8. ^ "Nonsense". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved January 18, 2022.
  9. ^ "Whelm". Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2020-12-18.
  10. ^ "Whelmen - Middle English Compendium".
  11. ^ "Words We're Watching: Prepone". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
  12. ^ "Ruthful". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 18, 2020.

External links[edit]