Etymology Linguistics

Are you discombobulated?

Q: I always assumed (wrongly so I am sure) that the prefix “dis-” invariably made a word negative. Then the more I thought about it, I realized that many words starting with “dis-” don’t have a positive opposite. Specifically, I used “discombobulated” the other day, and then later (to be funny) used “combobulated” much to the confusion of my audience. Where does “dis-” come from?

A: As you suspect, the prefix “dis-” isn’t always negative. Buried inside it is a small clue to its origin. Yes, the clue is “di,” meaning two.

In classical Latin, the primary meaning of the prefix dis– was “two ways, in twain,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Here, very broadly, are the principal senses of the prefix given in the OED:

(1) “In twain, in different directions, apart, asunder.” This sense has given us words like “discern,” “discuss,” “dismiss,” “dissent,” “distend,” “distill,” and “disrupt” (literally, a division into parts).

(2) “Separately, singly, one by one.” This sense is evident in “dispute,” whose Latin ancestor disputare meant to estimate, investigate, or discuss. (In English, “dispute” was originally a commercial term for calculating a sum by considering each of its items separately.)

(3) “Implying removal, aversion, negation, reversal of action.” This is the usual, negative meaning of the prefix. This sense of opposition is found in words like “disjoin,” “displease,” “dissociate,” “dissuade,” “disown,” and many others.

Sometimes, as Oxford explains, the prefix has been reduced to “di-,” and the following “s” is part of the root word.

This is the case, for example, with “disperse” and “distinguish,” whose root words in Latin begin with “s”—spargere (to scatter or sprinkle) and stinguere (originally “to stick or prick”).

“In classical Latin,” the OED says, “dis- was rarely prefixed to another prefix.”

But in late Latin and in Romance languages, many words had the double prefixes “discon-” and “discom-”; examples include “discomfit,” “discomfort,” “discompose,” “disconnect,” “disconsolate,” “discontent,” and “discontinue.”

Which brings us to the word you mentioned: “discombobulate.” We can’t give you its classical origins because it doesn’t have any!

“Discombobulate” is a joke word formed in 19th-century America as an alteration of “discompose” or “discomfit,” the OED suggests.

It means “to disturb, upset, disconcert,” the dictionary says, and was first recorded (in a variant form) in an 1834 issue of the New York Sun: “May be some of you don’t get discombobracated.”

The OED cites a nearly contemporary example of the noun form, “discombobulation,” from a New York sporting newspaper, Spirit of the Times (1839): “Finally, Richmond was obliged to trundle him, neck and heels, to the earth, to the utter discombobulation of his wig.”

So don’t bother looking for the opposite, “combobulate,” because there’s no such animal. You’ll only get discombobulated.

We wrote a blog posting a few years ago about the many words in English (“disgruntled,” “unkempt,” “ruthless,” and so on) that seem to have only negative forms.

Their opposite (positive) forms either don’t exist or are no longer used. There’s actually a term for a word like this, “cranberry morpheme,” which you can read about on our blog.

You might also be interested in a posting we wrote a while back on the vast number of negative prefixes English has at its disposal.

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