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Words like "misconstrue" or "disgruntled" are fairly common. But you much less commonly see the word "construe" or "gruntled"

Is there a term for words like this?

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    Construe is not that uncommon vs misconstrue:books.google.com/ngrams/… – user66974 Feb 25 '15 at 8:04
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    I'm plussed. :( – Kris Feb 25 '15 at 8:31
  • Ruly may be a better candidate than construe. There are also others. – Kris Feb 25 '15 at 8:32
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    I am such a dolent man,\I eptly work each day;\My acts are all becilic,\I've just ane things to say. (attributed to a J. H. Parker.) Phrases Org phrases.org.uk/bulletin_board/20/messages/136.html – Kris Feb 25 '15 at 8:42
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These words are called Absent Antonyms or Unpaired Words.

absent antonym: ...negative-looking words commonly found in the English language whose presumed positive forms are rarely, or never, found. [2wheels.org.uk]

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. [wikipedia]

Some of them end up with matching antonyms as a result of back-formation (sometimes as a jocular back-formation like gruntled as opposed to disgruntled), or had antonyms in the past which fell out of use.

There is also the term lonely negatives used at mentalfloss.com. However, they are defined as "negative words whose positive partners have vanished or never existed in the first place." Common examples: Disgusted, disgruntled and disheveled.

  • Seems like all the alternatives apply to cases where the pairing word just doesn't exist or is never used, not where it is uncommon. – Kris Feb 25 '15 at 8:30
  • @Kris: There are cases that the antonym is uncommon. – ermanen Feb 25 '15 at 8:33
  • Then why do we call them "absent," "unpaired," or "lonely"? – Kris Feb 25 '15 at 8:34
  • @Kris: Probably because, most of the time there isn't an antonym or it is very rare. I didn't coin them though :) – ermanen Feb 25 '15 at 8:38
  • There! I was thinking just that -- no one coined them as such, someone used the nonce phrases to make their point. So I suspect there's really no name or a term that officially defines. Just my 2c. – Kris Feb 25 '15 at 8:41

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