The Grammarphobia Blog

The grunts of a gruntled pig

Q: I’m still searching for a dictionary containing the adjective “gruntled.” I do it every time I read about a “disgruntled” athlete. (And, yes, I include you, Osi Umenyiora!)

A: We wrote blog postings touching on “gruntled” in 2007, 2009, and 2010. But you’ve given us an excuse to trace it to its roots, with the help of the one dictionary you didn’t check: the Oxford English Dictionary.

The relatively new adjective “gruntled,” a word you’ll find mostly in humorous writing, is descended from a very old verb, “gruntle.”

And that very old verb comes from an even older one, “grunt” (yes, the sound pigs make), which was first recorded in writing in the early eighth century.

“Grunt,” the OED says, is an “echoic formation,” which means it echoes the sound it represents.

And “gruntle” is merely “grunt” with a “diminutive or frequentative ending” tacked on, the OED explains. (A frequentative verb represents a repetitive action—“crackle,” “sparkle,” “wobble,” and so on.)

“Gruntle,” first recorded in writing about 1400, is defined this way in the OED: “To utter a little or low grunt. Said of swine, occas. of other animals; rarely of persons.”

The first recorded example is from Mandeville’s Travels, by Sir John Mandeville, written sometime before 1425:

“Thai … spekez nogt, bot gruntils as swyne duse.” (We’ve replaced the runic letters in the quotation, which in modern English means, “They speak naught, but gruntle as swine do.”)

And here’s an example of the past tense, “gruntled,” from a 1605 translation of Pierre le Loyer’s Treatise of Specters or Straunge Sights, Visions and Apparitions: “Shee growing enraged, made so filthy a noyse and gruntled so horribly against him.”

Toward the end of the following century, “gruntle” was being used to mean grumble or complain. Here are some early OED citations:

1591: “It becommeth vs not to haue our hearts heir gruntling vpon this earth.” (From Robert Bruce’s Sermons Preached in the Kirk of Edinburgh.)

1601: “He cannot endure that wee should gruntle against him with stubborne sullennesse.” (From Arthur Dent’s The Plaine Mans Path-way to Heaven.)

1687: “She does nothing but gruntle.” (From a definition in Guy Miège’s The Great French Dictionary.)

At around the time that last example was recorded, the prefix “dis-“ was added to “gruntle” as an intensifier. So, to use the OED’s definition, to “disgruntle” was “to put into sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humour; to chagrin, disgust.”

The verb was generally used in the form of a past participle—to be “disgruntled”—a form also used as a participial adjective. The OED’s first citation is from Henry Care’s The History of Popery (1682): “Hodge was a little disgruntled at that Inscription.”

We come at last to the latest incarnaton of “gruntled,” an adjective that the OED defines as “pleased, satisfied, contented,” and describes as a back-formation from “disgruntled.” (A back-formation is a new word formed by dropping part of an old one.)

This new version of “gruntled” wasn’t recorded until the mid-20th century, and the author credited with the first use in print is one of our favorites, P. G. Wodehouse.

In his novel The Code of the Woosters (1938), Wodehouse writes: “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.”

To make a long story short, the “dis-” in “disgruntled” wasn’t originally a negative prefix, which is why “gruntled” wasn’t originally the opposite of “disgruntled.” It took a humorist like Wodehouse to construe an “opposite.”

But this newish adjective makes a certain amount of sense. As we said, the verb “grunt” is the ancestor of “gruntle” and “disgruntled.” Just think of a satisfied pig, happily grunting to itself. What better adjective to describe that contented pig than “gruntled”?

And as for Osi Umenyiora, the NFL defensive end is probably gruntled too after agreeing on a new contract with the Giants.

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