Is there a term to describe an unprefixed term like sheveled that is used less or not at all compared to its prefixed relative disheveled?

My word Helen, you look very sheveled today!

Edit: Below Malvolio brings up the example of kempt which is another example of what I'm talking about. A word that has both prefixed and unprefixed forms in English, but the unprefixed form has mostly fallen out of use.

kempt vs. unkempt

  • That ngram is misleading: it's mostly picking up the name Kempt.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented Apr 24, 2011 at 21:24
  • @z7sg Good note: I suppose that one of the major draw backs to the Ngram is that it doesn't really pick up on case-sensitivity.
    – gbutters
    Commented Apr 24, 2011 at 21:38
  • 2
    @z7sg: No. Google n-gram viewer is case sensitive but the links it provides to Google Books are not case sensitive. You can verify this by adding Kempt to the terms to compare and you will see that the surname ceased to be overwhelmingly more common than the adjective by 1920. Commented Apr 24, 2011 at 21:45
  • @hippietrail: Ah OK, I see. That is annoying that Google Books is not case sensitive. How can you see what you are matching? But it doesn't show that the surname is 'overwhelmingly' more common than the adjective.
    – z7sg Ѫ
    Commented Apr 24, 2011 at 22:05
  • @z7sg: As I said the surname is not overwhelmingly more common than the adjective now, but it was before the 20th century: ngrams.googlelabs.com/… Commented Apr 25, 2011 at 9:44

6 Answers 6


This reminded me of Justice Scalia's telling off of a lawyer for using the word choate, which doesn't exist. According to the New York Times article, it's called back-formation:

Stripping the in- from inchoate is known as back-formation, the same process that has given us words like peeve (from peevish), surveil (from surveillance) and enthuse (from enthusiasm). There’s a long linguistic tradition of removing parts of words that look like prefixes and suffixes to come up with “roots” that weren’t there to begin with. Some back-formations work better than others.

  • 3
    My favorite: escalate, which derives from a trade-name for moving staircases, not the other way around.
    – mattdm
    Commented Apr 25, 2011 at 2:54

In this particular example, it appears the "disheveled" was never an compound of "dis-" and a root word. According to at least one source it was borrowed whole from French and adapted, explaining the lack of "sheveled" in English. So "disheveled" isn't actually an example of the sort of word you're looking to name.

An okay (but not excellent) example would be a word like "rehabilitate". It is a combination of the prefix "re-" and a root word, and "habilitate" isn't a word that enjoys much use today.

Unfortunately, after all that I can't give you a single-word term for such words. In linguistics they're merely called "unproductive roots", but that's just a descriptive phrase for them rather than a dedicated technical term.


I have heard words like this referred to as "cran- morphemes", in that they are false etymons derived by decoupling a valid morpheme from the rest of a valid word, leaving a non-meaningful string with presumed meaning and associationg to the original word. This is by analogy to "cranberry", in which the "-berry" part is a recognizable morpheme that can be appended to meaningful free morphemes in some cases (e.g. "blue-"), but the "cran-" is not.

  • +1 - It's like "Watergate" from which other scandals derived, i.e. Sexgate, etc. But I didn't think this was the same case...
    – Alenanno
    Commented Apr 24, 2011 at 14:41
  • I'm not quite sure of the applicability of the term here. The term "cranberry morpheme" usually describes a morpheme that has no meaning per se but always exists as a bound morpheme. Or put another way, part of what makes "cran-" a cranberry morpheme is that it combines with "-berry". I'm not sure we have an analogous case here. Commented Apr 24, 2011 at 14:59

I think kempt is known as a back formation, because it is formed by taking the opposite of unkempt, even though unkempt (in the sense of an untidy, messy appearance) predates that of kempt (which is quite new).

It's like people hear the word unkempt, and over-apply the pattern of removing the negative prefix to make a positive.

This article is very useful.

Another example is gruntled and disgruntled.


Wikipedia calls words like this: "Unpaired Words".

  • disgruntled - gruntled
  • disheveled - sheveled
  • uncouth - couth
  • discombobulated - combobulated
  • unkempt - kempt


No, that's doesn't work. Well-groomed? Squared-away? Spiffy?

I've heard women say "worked" and "done" in that situation, but there was a definite catty undertone.

  • Thanks for the response. Kempt is another example of the term that I'm looking for, because there is 'kempt' and 'unkempt', and unkempt is favored.
    – gbutters
    Commented Apr 24, 2011 at 17:33

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