One of the deficiencies in the way English is taught – even in my far distant schooldays – is the absence of any formal study of grammar and the noble art of parsing. We were taught to analyse, decline and parse Greek and Latin words until the cows came home but it never crossed our paedogogues’ minds – or ours, for that matter – to apply the same analytical techniques to our native language. A shame really as we missed out on the joys of intensifiers and the frequentative.
To rectify this lamentable situation we will look at the word disgruntle where both grammatical terms can be found alive and well. The meaning of the word, invariably used in its past participle adjectival form, is plain enough. Someone so described is angry or dissatisfied. I started pondering the word the other day when I was rereading P G Wodehouse’s The Code of the Woosters, published in 1938. There he uses a wonderful play on words in the sentence, “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”.
Was gruntled just a Wodehousian neologism, devised to make an amusing pun, I wondered? Well, not really. John Bunyan used the word in 1680 in his The Life and Death of Mr Badman; “..he could speak no more than a Swine or Bear. Therefore, like one of them, he would gruntle and make an ugly noise..” So to gruntle was to make an inhuman, animal-like noise – not exactly the antonym of disgruntle. Its origins, though, are even earlier. It was used in the early 15th century in the sense of making a little or low grunt and by around the 1580s it was used to convey discontent or complaint. It was in this sense that it was used by Emerson Hough in his 1922 novel, The Covered Wagon, “they dismounted…they gruntled as they unloaded the two larger mules”.
The le in the word is what grammarians call the frequentative and gives the sense of repetition as in sparkle which is a repeated form of spark. Dis as a prefix is normally used to transform the root word into a negative. Add dis to the word appear and instead of having something revealing itself in front of you it vanishes. But the prefix in our word acts as an intensifier. It means that we are more than gruntled – muttering and complaining to ourselves – we are pissed. So Wodehouse is guilty of a little grammatical inexactitude but I think he can be forgiven because of the quality of his pun.
One of my favourite words is discombobulate. It is used to convey the sense of someone being confused or discomfited, first appearing on the other side of the pond in the New York Sun in 1834; “maybe some of you don’t get discombobulated”. Five years later it turned up in a New York sporting rag, The Spirit of the Times; “finally, Richmond was obliged to trundle him, neck and heels, to the earth, to the utter discombobulation of his wig”. Journalists aren’t so florid in their prose these days.
The question arises as to whether the prefix dis is used as a negative or an intensifier. The problem, however, is that combobulate or bobulate does not exist as a word. It was probably a piece of nonsense used to accentuate the state of confusion in the subject. In that case, then, the prefix would be an intensifier as it is in disgruntled.
It is all very discombobulating but fun, nevertheless.