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Say you want to wear a shirt: it would be odd to say, "I'm going topful". Is the reason due to topless being more out of the norm, and thus requiring a term? Maybe in places where not wearing a shirt is more normal, topful may be a more likely word to exist. Or maybe topful sounds like it would be totally covered, so the term isn't used. Or maybe the suffix 'less' often isn't paired with a converse version with 'ful'. Or maybe it's a combination of these things. In any case, any ideas why topful is not said?

Topful is indeed a word, but that doesn't seem to apply here:

Full to the top, or brim; brimfull. (Webster)

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6 Answers 6

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Kenneth Holmqvist and Jarosław Płuciennik discuss this in Conceptualised Deviations from Expected Normalties: A Semantic Comparison Between Lexical Terms Ending in -ful and -less. This is more of a formal examination than a practical one, so I should say now that your interpretation of the reason seems to be correct.

10.1. Adjectives meaning that a specified part is lacking.

[Here,] we find examples such as bloodless, brainless, earless, fingerless, finless, footless, roofless, rootless, toothless, verandaless, waterless. Here -less evokes a whole (such as body for bloodless) which is normally expected to have the lacking concrete part mentioned in the stem. It is relatively easy to predict what whole toothless and brainless refer to, even without any context. Not only do they evoke wholes which are denoted by nouns, the things that can be bloodless is a much more restricted group than the things that can be green, soft, or even beautiful.

In other words, when a speaker uses a word like bloodless, fingerless or roofless, s/he creates a very restricted context from the expected whole with the stem part missing. Although a restricted context, the whole may be a semantically rich concept, such as the war in bloodless war. The listener receiving bloodless automatically experiences the expectation of several such possible rich wholes (except for war, also body, film, victory, coup, statistics).

[...]

The reason that there are no -ful adjectives corresponding to this group of -less adjectives should be obvious: There are not many things normally without fingers that we would want to say are fingerful, so fingerful can almost only express either what is already expected and nothing special (fingerful hand; a hand with fingers) or what is a weird anomaly (fingerful house). Using fingerful is therefore pointless. Had -ful expressed a process leading to the state (as does -filled), the anomalies could have been resolved: Compare bloodful barrel to blood-filled barrel. But -ful only refers to the state itself.

Also, as we will see, -ful requires there to be a container involved, and normally these adjectival stems are not placed in containers. It is difficult to conceptualise the hand as a container that is possible to fill with fingers.

Though topless is not discussed here specifically, it is the same phenomenon at play.

Here -less evokes a whole (such as body for bloodless) which is normally expected to have the lacking concrete part mentioned in the stem.

(Topless evokes a person [whole] lacking a top [stem])

The paper has an appendixful of such words; other members of this category include lidless, spotless, treeless, etc.

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    You just blew everyone away. Incredible answer that makes the site worthwhile!
    – Fattie
    Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 10:52
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Why, I'm not quite sure, but women can be topless but not men, unless it's said facetiously.

When a man doesn't wear a shirt, he's "bare chested" or "shirtless". Likewise when a man wears a shirt he is dressed or clothed, he is not "shirtful".

Not every noun with the suffix -less has its equivalent -full; e.g. childless , childful (?); headless, headful (?); homeless, homeful (?)

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    in a similar vein, an article of clothing worn on the upper body by a man is rarely if ever called "a top" but one worn by a woman sometimes is called "a top"
    – eques
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 0:19
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    Don't think too hard about English. It's not designed for that.
    – Nelson
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 0:42
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    But "shirtless" and "topless" would mean different things when applied to women, wouldn't they? Someone wearing a sports bra is shirtless but not topless.
    – alphabet
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 2:08
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    I fundamentally disagree that you wouldn't say that a man is "topless". @eques - I also wouldn't agree that you wouldn't say a man in a t-shirt or polo has a top on. This could, however, be a US/UK thing though. Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 9:34
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    Do you have a source that topless only applies to women? That's certainly not the case in my experience. I'd happily describe both men and women to be topless. Likewise "shirtless" applies to both IME.
    – Tim
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 9:57
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Adjectives formed on the pattern X-less when applied to a noun indicate that the noun lacks X.

Someone who is graceless lacks grace.

Adjectives formed on the pattern X-ful when applied to a noun indicate that the noun is full of X.

They were hopeful that the rain would stop.

They were full of hope that the rain would stop.

Full has a variety of related meanings. It isn't always as simple as a pitcher being filled with water. When someone is helpful, help comes from them; they have help to give and give it.

If you don't have a shirt on, you are topless, lacking a top, without a top, a "top" being something you wear on your torso, sometimes also on your shoulders, and sometimes also on your arms.

If you do have a shirt on, your are not "full of top". You are "wearing a shirt". The situation simply doesn't call for a -ful adjective.

FWIW, X-ful and X-less adjectives do not not always have semantically opposite meanings.

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  • You're the only one answering the core of the question rather than speculating about cultural norms. Well done.
    – neptun
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 9:47
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Such words are called "unpaired words" or "orphan words".

These are words which seem like they should have an obvious "opposite word" or "antonym", but when you create that obvious antonym, it is not a widely recognized term in English.

  • distressful -> stressful is not an antonym.
  • inflammable -> flammable is not an antonym.
  • ruthless -> ruthful is archaic.
  • feckless -> feckful is regional Scottish.
  • reckless -> reckful not typically considered a word.
  • gormless -> gormful not typically considered a word.
  • superstitious -> stitious not typically considered a word.
  • nonchalant -> chalant not typically considered a word.
  • disheveled -> heveled not typically considered a word.
  • disgruntled -> gruntled rarely used.
  • innocent -> nocent is archaic.

Even where there is an antonym, there are a few different ways to create an antonym of a "-less" word. There's at least "-ful", "-y", "-ed", "-ous", "-able", likely more.

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    Good answer, but "superstitious" seems odd on this list - wouldn't the obvious opposite be "substitious" for "standing under"? Not that I'm not tickled by the idea of things being slightly stitious or moderately stitious... Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 9:35
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    Although "dishevelled" looks like it has a dis- prefix, it's unrelated. It derives from Old French descheveler. And, in a parallel with "inflammable"/"flammable", "shevelled" has the same meaning as "dishevelled". Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 14:22
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    surprised to see that unkempt did not put in an appearance there!
    – Deipatrous
    Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 15:41
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    @Deipatrous "Kempt" is a valid word, and the opposite of "unkempt," thus it does not belong on this list. Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 19:17
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    I've seen "stressful" often but never "distressful".
    – Simon
    Commented Aug 31, 2023 at 8:42
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Is the reason due to topless being more out of the norm, and thus requiring a term?

Yes. I suppose that, in linguistic terms, "topless" is culturally abnormal in the country of origin of English, chiefly on account of British weather and a Christian moral ethic. In Kenyan tribal terms, for example, I assume that the equivalent strange but essential adjective will equate to "dressed above the waist."

If you take the example of "a carriage arrived at the farm" in Old English, one assumes that, as most carriages were drawn by oxen, an adjective would only be necessary if it were drawn by horses or some other animal.

However, by the 16th century, ox-drawn carriages were becoming rare and it would be "horse-drawn" that would be assumed.

By the late 19th/early 20th century the "horseless" carriage appeared and, as these were rare, an adjective had to be used.

Not unreasonably, all words carry a nuance and this is often cultural.

We don't need a word for "topful" as "topful" is the cultural default.

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    "-ful" is only rarely the opposite of "-less".Take your own example: nobody ever spoke of a "horseful" carriage. And even if they did, it would mean a carriage full of horses, not a carriage drawn by horses.
    – TonyK
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 23:03
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    @TonyK The question was "In any case, any ideas why topful is not said?" The actual form of the adjective seems irrelevant.
    – Greybeard
    Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 23:41
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    @Greybeard Yes, the actual form would presumably be "topped" (by analogy with "hatless" vs "hatted"), but for the reasons you give isn't actually used. Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 8:38
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Your last supposition is nearest, I think: "Maybe the suffix -less often isn't paired with a converse of -ful."

Where the -less or -ful means "without" or "having", it's by no means a given that they are capable of being exchanged to change the meaning.

It does (more-or-less) work with mindful/mindless, careful/careless, or even wonderful/wonderless, but roofless can't be given a roof to become *roofful; topless can't be given a shirt to become *topful.

Where -ful actually means full, you can't say "less than full" as in *spoonless.

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    Resourceful and resourceless, masterful and masterless show different semantic relations. Merciful and merciless are antonyms, but grateful and grateless aren't. Commented Aug 28, 2023 at 15:14
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    @EdwinAshworth Exactly, as I hinted in my answer. Spoonful is a quantity; but spoonless doesn't even have a spoon.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Aug 29, 2023 at 15:29
  • Roofful isn't a word, but "roofed" and "treed" are. "Shirted" also is, but "topped" means something else. ("Shirted" is rarely used alone and it sounds weird, perhaps fully incorrect, to say "I saw a shirted man". But seems fine to say "I saw some red-shirted men".) Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 17:32
  • @PeterCordes That's completely different and has nothing to do with -ful.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 17:35
  • I thought it was interesting that there is a word with the meaning the OP was looking for, it's just not "topful", and nobody has mentioned "shirted". Also that some of the other examples you picked do have an "-ed" form as a near antonym to the "-ful" form, unlike "topped"... but fair enough, explaining why for all those things is quite a bit broader. Commented Aug 30, 2023 at 17:39

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