Q: I hear “nonchalant” used all the time to mean unconcerned, but I never hear “chalant” used to mean concerned. Is there such a word in English?
A: No, there’s no “chalant,” just “nonchalant.” Only the negative form of the word has found a home in English.
As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “nonchalant” was borrowed from French sometime before 1734.
It’s defined as meaning “calm and casual; (deliberately) lacking in enthusiasm or interest; indifferent, unconcerned.”
In French, nonchalant is the present participle of the verb nonchaloir (the earlier form was nonchaler), meaning to neglect or despise.
Its roots are the negative prefix non and the verb chaloir (earlier chaler), meaning to interest or to be important.
Those French verbs came from the classical Latin verb calere, which the OED defines as “to be warm, to be roused with zeal or anger, to be active.”
But though we don’t have “chalant,” we once had an adjective derived from that Latin verb: “calent.”
It’s no longer used, but back in the 1600s and 1700s it meant warm or hot.
We’ve written before on the blog about words like “disgruntled” and “inscrutable” that seem to have only negative forms.
The third edition of Pat’s grammar and usage book Woe Is I includes a section about words like these. We’ll quote the passage:
“Some words are sourpusses. They’re negative through and through, and have no positive counterparts. I’m thinking of words like unkempt, inept, disgruntled, and uncouth. We might joke about looking ‘kempt’ or being ‘couth,’ but in fact the negatives have no opposite forms—they’re either obsolete rarities or whimsical inventions.
“Other negatives with nonexistent or obscure opposite numbers include debunk, disappointing, disconcerting, disconsolate, disheveled, dismayed, immaculate, impeccable, inadvertent, incapacitated, inclement, incognito, incommunicado, incorrigible, indefatigable, inevitable, indomitable, insipid, misnomer, mistake, nonchalant, noncommittal, nondescript, nonpareil, nonplussed, unassuming, unbeknownst, ungainly, and unwieldy.
“Some similar words without opposite versions may look like negatives, but they aren’t. Their negative-looking prefixes (im and in) emphasize or intensify instead. Actually, intensify and instead are among these words, and so are insure, impromptu, inscribe, and inflammable.”
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