Lost positives and false negatives – disgruntled and inflammable

Recently, we’ve been focusing on commonly confused words, such as  farther vs. further or imply vs. infer. Among often confused words are those that can said to be those with a “lost positive” or a “false negative,” such as disgruntled and inflammable.

Disgruntled, like unkempt, discombobulate, and nondescript, is a part of a category of words with a “lost positive” – “one of those interesting negatives without a corresponding positive word” (Garner 806).

This fact has led to discussions in print and online about whether gruntled is a word.

In 1999, William Safire asked in his NY Times “On Language” column, “How come you don’t ever hear about gruntled employees? Those of us in the scandalmongering dodge rely heavily on ‘disgruntled former employees’ for leaks, tips and other often-slanderous leads.”

Safire quotes The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) which defines gruntle as “to grumble, murmur, complain” and provides a quote from a 1589 sermon by Robert Bruce: “It becomes us not to have our hearts here gruntling upon this earth.” But Joseph Piercy, in the vocabulary book A Word a Day, states that gruntle came from the grunt sounds made by animals, particularly pigs. Piercy provides an example from an early 14th century fantastical book, The Travels of John Mandeville, in which natives near the Garden of Eden look hideous and “gruntle like swine” – a source also noted by O’Conner and Kellerman on grammarphobia.com.

According to merriam-webster.com, the word disgruntle has been around since 1682 with the meaning “to make ill-humored or discontented,” similar to the earlier gruntle, “which is why gruntled wasn’t originally the opposite [false positive] of disgruntled.” Dis- is commonly a negative prefix (as in the words disability, disbar, discontent, dislike, disown).  But in the case of disgruntle (and also discombobulate), dis- is an intensifying or amplifying prefix: dis- plus the older word gruntled (meaning “to grumble”). According to the OED’s definition, to “disgruntle” was “to put into sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humour; to chagrin, disgust” (qtd in grammarphobia.com).

Gruntled, notes merriam-webster.com, in the older sense of “to grumble” is now used only in British dialect. However, in the 20th-century, gruntled began appearing in an upbeat sense, meaning ‘”to put in a good humor” or “pleasing, satisfied, contented.” In what several sources call a “back formation” from disgruntle, the false positive gruntle is “born again” (OED, merriam-webster.com, New Fowler’s).

Many articles have credited with the first modern use of gruntled in print to P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Jeeves, in his 1938 book The Code of the Woosters: “If not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”  Though merriam-webster.com cites 1926 as the earliest use, no instance is given for it. Instead, this site and others provide an example from the 1931 W. P. Webb book The Great Plains: “They were gruntled with a good meal and good conversation.” Despite appearances of gruntled, the word is far from common and even MS Word marks it with the red squiggly “misspelling” underline.

FYI – Bryan A. Garner notes in his usage guide that “disgruntled complaints” is a common everyday expression, in which “an adjective logically modifies not the noun actually supplied, but an implied one.” This phenomenon is called hypallage, (also the transferred epithet), “a figure of speech in which the proper subject is displaced by what would logically be the object (if it were named directly).” For example, consider the line from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “This was the most unkindest cut of all” (3.2.183). As Garner writes, “it was not the cut that was unkind, but rather the cutter [Brutus]. Hence the object has become the subject.” In our phrase it’s not the complaints that are disgruntled, but the complainers, like Safire’s disgruntled employees. Garner goes on to say that even though this figure of speech is generally harmless, there are purists who object to these “convenient” phrases, such as when saying “But the marker itself isn’t permanent, is it?” His response that such disgruntled complaints are by people “simply parading their own pedantry” (216-217).

Inflammable, on the other hand, is what is called a “false negative.”

Because inflammable begins with in-, it is often mistakenly defined or used for / in the sense “not flammable,” making it a false negative.

However, though they look like opposites, inflammable and flammable are synonyms: as Nordquist writes, they are both adjectives meaning the same thing: easily set on fire and capable of burning quickly. (He goes on to point out that metaphorically, inflammable can also mean “easily angered or excited,” something we’ll take up later.

The first word to appear in the English language is inflammable, which came into use in the 1600s. It comes from the Latin verb inflammare, which means “to cause to catch fire.” Though sources differ on the date flammable entered the language (some say the 19th century, others the 20th-century), this word was coined from a translation of the Latin verb flammare (“to catch fire”), to which inflammare is related. (Nordquist, merriam-webster.com)

As with the prefix dis-, in- can make a word negative, such as with the words incapableinflexible, and incompetent. But, as with disgruntled, the in-in inflammable is an intensifier, adding emphasis, so inflammable is a false negative. (New Fowler’s 525)

Because of the confusion over the meanings of inflammable and flammable¸ especially because it has real-life consequences, attempts were made by safety organizations in the 20th-century to change from the traditional the forms inflammable and noninflammable to the “artificial” forms of flammable and nonflammable. As Garner writes, “Even staunch descriptivists endorsed the prescriptive shift from inflammable to flammable” giving as an example this quote from Archibald A. Hill, “Bad Words, Good Words, Misused Words”: “A word is bad if it is ambiguous to such a degree that it leads to misunderstanding. For me, the perfect example of such a word is inflammable, if it is applied to substances. As most dictionaries now recognize, inflammable can be confused with non-combustible, and so lead to accidents” (qtd in Garner 352).

Inflammable can also be confused with inflammatory; indeed, some usage experts, such as Nordquist quoted at the beginning of this section, give inflammable the definition of “easily angered or excited.” Others, such as Garner insists on the “well-known distinction”: “While both words are synonymous with incendiary, inflammable is always literal (the arsonist used an inflammable liquid to spread the fire), inflammatory always figurative (the inflammatory rhetoric almost caused a riot)” (452).

Despite having a new-found positive, disgruntled is a word understood and used by many, while gruntled is far less common, except for comic writes, such as Wodehouse. On the other hand, flammable and its false negative inflammable is more likely to be used in situations by most people.

Norquist offers this closing advice: “Flammable should now be the obvious choice for burnable. The first syllable looks like flame, and that’s what it means: Capable of going up in flames. . . . Inflammable isn’t incorrect, but it’s imprecise, and that could be dangerous. Nonflammable also should be the obvious choice: non (not) plus flammable, meaning it won’t burn.”

(Material adapted from Garner’s Modern American Usage; William Safire; Joseph Piercy, A Word a Day; grammarphobia.com; merriam- webster.com on disgruntle and on flammable; Richard Norquist; The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage.)

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