Ill humours and untangled threads – more adventures in dictionaries
I’ve been listening to the NPR show, “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” since, I think, the very first broadcast. And it was while walking home from work one day many years ago, that I first heard a particular use of a word when a listener contestant described herself as a “gruntled postal worker.” She was a mail delivery person, driving a small mail truck around a rural community, and she said he loved her work. That self-description elicted laugher from the panel for a couple of reasons. First, a series of unfortunate workplace violence incidents beginning in the mid-80s in which angry post office employees violently attacked supervisors, co-workers and so forth, the phrase “disgruntled postal worker” and “going postal” had become colloquialisms used in describing workplace violence issues. Second, it sounded like a back-formation of an existing word. Disgruntled describes a state of ill-humor, moody dissatisfaction, or sulky discontent. And since the prefix dis– usually indicates a negation, then removing the syllable ought to reverse the meaning of the word, right?
Just look at that definition of disgruntled: dissatisfaction is the opposite of satisfaction and discontent is the opposite of content. It seems obvious.
But it’s not that simple.
Because discontent and dissatisfaction come to us from Latin and Latin-derived languages. In Latin dis- is, indeed a synonym for “not” or “bad” or “separate.” But disgruntled does not come to English by way of Latin. Disgruntled is based on an Old English word which in turn came from the Old Saxon word grunt meaning literally a low, short, gutteral sound. And the dis- in disgruntled also comes from Old Saxon, where it means “very or a large amount.” The Old English word that I alluded to above is gruntle, which was a verb meaning to make those gutteral sounds–literally to moan and groan. To be gruntled, then, meant to be in a mood or state that causes you to moan and groan with dissatisfaction, while to be disgruntled meant not just a little bit unhappy and cranky, but to be extremely unhappy.
It’s not surprising that modern English speakers aren’t familiar with the Old Saxon prefix, dis– , because digruntled is the only common English word in which that prefix still appears. Nearly every other English word beginning with the letters d i and s Derive from Latin. There are a few rare words we’ve swiped from Dutch and Turkish and the like which begin with those three letters and don’t mean “not-” something.
Disgruntled, then, can be thought of as an orphaned Saxon word—a sort of living fossil in the language, if you will. And there is one other such fossil word hiding in modern English among the dis-es. Distaff, meaning the female branch or side of a family, has also survived intact from Old English. However, the dis– in distaff has almost no relationship to the dis– in disgruntled. Because the Old English distaff didn’t come from Old Saxon, but rather from Middle Low German. In Middle Low German dise meant a bundle of flax. And the disestaff was a specially shaped stick that was used to wind lengths of flax or wool or similar fibers to keep them from tangling until they could be woven or knitted into a cloth or garment.
The rather sexist reason that the English word distaff now refers to the female side of a family or to the female realm is because winding thread or yarn and turning it into garments was considered women’s work. The word isn’t considered completely archaic at this point, but fortunately it isn’t a terrbbly common word, any longer. We could do with a bit less of the dominance of the patriarchy in our language.
Despite my explanation above about the original meaning of gruntle, you will not find me angrily lecturing people for misusing the word. Gruntled is a perfectly servicable colloquialism to refer to a feeling of happiness. And I strongly suspect that the humorous way people tend to use it means that it’s going to stick around for a while. And that’s a good thing. Because if gruntled continues to catch on, that increases the likelihood that the fossil disgruntled will avoid linguistic extinction for a while longer.
And I’ve always had a soft spot for fossils.