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What do you call words that look like a negation but are not?

I found these poor orphaned words that only exist through the life-giving quality of their affix:

feckless, ruthless, unruly, inept, dishevelled, dismayed, disgruntled

I'm sure there are more. They have the familiar appearance of antonyms... Antonyms to something that doesn't exist. It's as if they've lost their positive attitude.

Do these words have a common name?

How did they get this way? They all have standard english affixes with known meaning, so it seems like they should be able to stand on their own. Were the original words lost?

Is there a list of these recognized words somewhere?

  • At least some of your example words have been addressed here before--you might want to use the search tool and find some of those questions.
    – user10893
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 3:43
  • I think you might be quite disturbed by the number of such words starting with dis. To be honest I'm not sure we ever had an English word based on the Latin turba=crowd. But I quite like the question, and OP's own coinage "orphaned". Another might be "degenerate" in that we can't "deconstruct" an original word. Except in the case of gruntled we really have created the word by facetious back-formation. Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 4:13
  • 5
    I thinks this question is directly related to the one you ask
    – D Krueger
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 5:00
  • @FumbleFingers: "gruntled" may be a back-formation now, but "disgruntled" is from "disgruntle" which is dis- + gruntle etymonline.com/index.php?term=disgruntle Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 12:50
  • @Mr. Shiny: You are right, of course. Obviously gruntle had to exist in order to be negated in the first place. Though I'm not so sure about etymonline's mention of grumble. It seems to me the original meaning was more the snuffly grunting of contented pigs. Who would presumably be disgruntled if they had no acorns & truffles to root out. Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 14:23

1 Answer 1


These words are called "bound morphemes."
See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morpheme:

In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest conceptual meaningful component of a word, or other linguistic unit, that has semantic meaning... a morpheme may or may not stand alone... A morpheme is free if it can stand alone (ex: "lie", "cake"), or bound if it is used exclusively alongside a free morpheme (ex: "im" in impossible).

  • 1
    I think bound morpheme only describe part of the word (im in your example, and some of the words of the OP are created by two bound morphemes). It doesn't seems like it would describe the whole word though.
    – Eldroß
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 7:16
  • Andrew Vit wrote, "I found these poor orphaned words that only exist through the life-giving quality of their affix." He then lists a number of words and asks if there are more. I believe he actually wants to know if there are more bound morphemes that can only exist as words with affixes, because the words themselves are not orphaned. The uniqueness of the words is the bound morpheme.
    – Mark
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 7:20
  • That's where our interpretation vary, when he says "I think there are more", first he is talking about the "orphaned words" which affix are a part of them, and second his first question is not to ask if there are more. I may states that he think there are more, but he first ask "Do these words have a common name?" as in the "orphaned word" affix included, and not only the bound morpheme. But I guess the only person who could tell which interpretation is right is @Andrew himself.
    – Eldroß
    Commented Sep 22, 2011 at 7:26

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