Discombobulate, like disgruntled, nondescript, unkempt, and unruly, is a part of a category of words with a “lost positive” – “one of those interesting negatives without a corresponding positive word” (Garner’s 806). It is also considered an American regionalism by The Oxford English Dictionary.
In addition, the word is recent, first appearing in 1916 according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Less than a century later, positive opposites, combobulate and recombobulate began appearing, though they have yet to be approved by established dictionaries.
Other dictionaries ascribe earlier origins. The Oxford dictionaries trace an earlier origin for discombobulated to late 19th century US American English. It is both the past tense and past participle of discombobulate. Merriam-webster.com, on the other hand, cites 1863 as the date of the first use of discombobulated and 1879 for discombobulate.
Variously described as an Americanism, as a colloquialism, as informal, as humorous, and even as whimsical, discombobulated experienced a sharp rise in use from 1950 through 2010 (oxforddictionaries.com). And though the forms of the word exist as the base verb discombobulate and the adjective form discombobulating, the form discombobulated seems to be the most common one used.
As the definition, most dictionaries give confused and disconcerted, with a few also providing upset or disoriented as possible meanings.
Here are examples of the various forms of the word used in sentences:
But you’ve also probably noticed that oversleeping can make you feel discombobulated …— Christopher Bergland (merriam-webster.com)
There are also three words which people give me all the time which they are convinced are local vernacular: bamboozle, kafuffle and discombobulate. (cambridge.org)
If it has been an unsettling season for all NFL players, it has been absolutely discombobulating for the Raiders … — Ron Fimrite (merriam-webster.com)
Discombobulate appears in both larger desk dictionaries, like Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language, College Edition which contains over 140,000 words, and also in paperback dictionaries, like The Merriam-Webster Dictionary (based on Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which contains over 75,000 words. Despite both works using the name Webster in their titles, it is the Merriam-Webster company and its publications that have a direct legal link to American lexicographer Noah Webster, as discussed in the previous post.
There was no “lost positive” for discombobulate, but further research revealed discussion around two words, combobulate and recombobulate, which are considered back-formations. (A back-formation as defined by oxfordlanguages.com is “a word formed from an already existing word from which it appears to be a derivative”- in these cases by the removal or substitution of a prefix.)
As Merrill Perlman writes, “English never had a word ‘combobulate’ to which the negative prefix dis– could be applied” – until recently.
Some web dictionaries, like wiktionary.org and urbandictionary.com, list combobulate and give these definitions: “to put together,” “to put back the way it was,” “to bring something out of a state of confusion or disarray.” However, despite being suggested as a new word to collinsdictionary.com in 2013, the word is not yet recognized in most established dictionaries, online or print. (Collinsdictionary.com flagged it as inappropriate with approval pending.)
On the other hand, the “Language Corner” of the Columbia Journalism Review devoted an article to the word recombobulate in 2017. Author Merrill Perlman traces its usage, particularly that by airport TSA, in signs denoting a “recombobulation area,” a place to put yourself together after going through screening.
The earliest use was found in a 1970 novel by Carolyn Heilbrun (writing as Amanda Cross), but it is being used increasingly by all sorts of writers and editors, including Prairie Home Companion’s Garrison Keillor. Perlman writes “it’s probably just a matter of time before it gets its due.”
Note: I’ve used both dictionaries and thesauruses in researching this post. Check out the first post I did on “Discombobulate and the Thesaurus.”)
(Resources: Garner’s Modern American Usage; The Oxford English Dictionary; Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary; merriam-webster.com; cambridge.org; Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language; wiktionary.org; urbandictionary.com; collinsdictionary.com; Merrill Perlman on recombobulation.)