The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you feeling gruntled?

Q: Is there a name for a word like “gruntled” (as in “disgruntled”) or “ruth” (as in “ruthless”) that exists only within another word?

A: The term you’re looking for is a “cranberry morpheme.”

A morpheme is the smallest linguistic unit. A bound morpheme (a prefix or a suffix, for example) must be attached to another linguistic unit. A free or unbound morpheme (a word like “cat,” “got,” or “yes”) makes sense on its own.

A cranberry morpheme (also known as a fossilized term) is a kind of bound morpheme. In theory, it doesn’t mean anything by itself, but many were once legitimate words and some have become words again, often used for comic effect.

The verb “gruntle,” for example, meant to grunt like a pig as far back as 1400, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. By the 16th century, it meant to grumble or complain. A century later, the prefix “dis,” meaning very, joined in, giving us our modern words “disgruntle” and “disgruntled.”

You rarely hear “gruntle” or “gruntled” used alone now, except in humor, as in this quote from P.G. Wodehouse: “He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

The words “ruth,” meaning compassion or pity, and “ruthless,” meaning pitiless, have been around since the days of Chaucer, but the OED doesn’t have any published references for plain old “ruth” since the 19th century.

Many cranberry morphemes appear in only one form. The “cran” of “cranberry” used to be one of them (excluding a few obscure terms like the one denoting the capacity of a herring barrel). But in recent years Ocean Spray has used “cran” (the ur-cranberry morpheme) in the names of new juices like Cran-Apple, Cran-Cherry, Cran-Grape, and Cran-Mango.

Now, where did “cran” come from? There are two theories: One is that cranes used to visit bogs and eat the berries. The other is that the stem, calyx, and petals of a cranberry flower resemble the neck, head, and bill of a crane.

Note: If you google “Jack Winter” and “New Yorker,” you should find a story written about a dozen years ago called “How I Met My Wife.” Every sentence has at least one cranberry morpheme.

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