Most native speakers are used to "dis-" as a prefix having a negative or opposite connotation (disengaged, dissatisfied, disinterested). However, in rare cases, "dis-" is actually an amplifying prefix, most notably in "disgruntled" and "disheveled".

Do these distinct families of "dis-" prefixed words have some common root? What's the reason for the two nearly opposite meanings?

  • 3
    Where do you get the idea that "dis" is an amplifying prefix in those two words? The OED certainly doesn't confirm this. – Colin Fine Jun 1 '16 at 23:31
  • grammarphobia.com/blog/2012/06/gruntled.html I was hoping for some more sources on the origin of the prefix usage in that manner. There is also a Grammar Girl blog about the back-formation of "gruntled" as an accepted word, among others: quickanddirtytips.com/education/grammar/dont-worry-be-gruntled – Rome_Leader Jun 1 '16 at 23:41
  • If you look at the etymology for dishevel you find that "dis" is not an intensifier, but rather means "apart". – Hot Licks Jun 2 '16 at 0:23
  • What's the reason for the two nearly opposite meanings? About 2500 years of absorbing words from at least a dozen different languages. – Hot Licks Jun 2 '16 at 0:25
  • But you get a discount when the disinterested clerk gets disengaged and fails to count your purchases correctly.  Note that disinterested and uninterested are different words with different meanings, and, while the Urban Dictionary defines tracted to mean focused, I consider this to be a case of reverse etymology. – Scott Jun 13 '16 at 19:55

The relevant meaning of "dis-" in the OED is:

"With verbs having already a sense of division, solution, separation, or undoing, the addition of dis- was naturally intensive, ‘away, out and out, utterly, exceedingly’, as in disperīre to perish utterly, dispudēre to be utterly ashamed, distædēre to be utterly wearied or disgusted; hence it became an intensive in some other verbs, as dīlaudāre to praise exceedingly, discupĕre to desire vehemently, dissuavīrī to kiss ardently. In the same way, English has several verbs in which dis- adds intensity to words having already a sense of undoing, as in disalter, disaltern, disannul."

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