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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. If the prefix or suffix is negative, such as 'dis-' or -'less', the word can be called an 'orphaned negative'.
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).
|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.|
|Feckless||Feckful||Used in Scottish English|
|Gormless||Gormful||Not attested. Gormless derives from gaumless, whose antonym gaumy is rare and highly region-specific.|
|Incorrigible||Corrigible||Rare. Typically describes the abstract, such as a theory, rather than a person.|
|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.|
|Intrepid||Trepid||Rare. Trepidatious, with redundant adjective ending, is in use.|
|Innocent||Nocent||Rare. Means "harmful."|
|Noncommital||Commital||Not an antonym. Commital (noun) means "the process of sending someone to a mental institution."|
|Nonplussed||Plussed[b]||Not attested. Nonplussed is from Latin non plus, meaning "no more."|
|Overwhelm||Whelm||Means "to turn upside down" or "to overcome in thought or feeling." May mean "to moderately impress" in recent usage. From Middle English whelmen meaning "to turn over."|
|Postpone||Prepone||Used in Indian English|
|Ruthless||Ruthful||Rare. Means "full of or causing sorrow."|
|Uncouth||Couth[b]||Rare. From Old English cunnan meaning "well-known" or "familiar."|
|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.|
|Untoward||Toward||Not an antonym. Untoward evolved from figurative alterations of toward involving deviation from norms; toward acquired no similar figurative meanings.|
- Accidental gap
- Cranberry morpheme
- Defective verb – other form of lexical gap
- False cognate
- Fossilization (linguistics)
- Polarity item
- Words not attested or very rare in English usage.
- Jocular or facetious coinages as intentional back-formation.
- 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.CS1 maint: others (link)
- "Orphaned negative | Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable - Credo Reference". search.credoreference.com. Retrieved 2021-10-05.
- "Feckful". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
- "Flammable vs. Inflammable". Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 12, 2020.
- "Trepidatious". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
- "Nocuous". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
- "Committal". Cambridge Dictionary. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
- "What's Going On With 'Nonplussed'?". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
- "Whelm". Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved 2020-12-18.
- "Words We're Watching: Prepone". Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
- "Ruthful". Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved December 18, 2020.
- "Unpaired words" at World Wide Words
- "Absent antonyms" at 2Wheels: The Return
- Words with no opposite equivalent, posted by James Briggs on April 2, 2003, at The Phrase Finder
- Brev Is the Soul of Wit, Ben Schott, The New York Times, April 19, 2010
- 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, "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