i’m not usually the kind of linguist who …

August 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

but I was recently asked to weigh in on the meaning of gruntled. All quotes below are from the Oxford Dictionary Online. I was asked to confirm, disconfirm that gruntled should mean ‘grumble’.

Here’s the long answer. I’m not sure I’m right.

Looking at the Oxford dictionary online

Gruntled is listed as a playful backformation of disgruntled.
This implies that the sense of gruntled is younger than that of disgruntled. This may mean that the creators of this backformation, which could be many individuals in different times and contexts, removed the dis-.

Now since disgruntled means ‘To put into sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humour; to chagrin, disgust. Chiefly in pa. pple’, according to the OED (see site above) the meaning of the backformation is dependent on the meaning the coiners of gruntled apply to the prefix dis-.
The OED lists a number of meanings for this term many of which are related. The OED sets out two distinct sets – the first, they suggest apply to English and Latin – so we should expect to see them on Latinate words and in fact the entire set of terms that are used to illustrate the meaning of dis- in group 1 are latinate. This group’s meaning is about splitting up, treating separately. However, sense 1.d and 1.e are of the most interest to us here.

1.d . With privative sense, implying removal, aversion, negation, reversal of action (cf. de- prefix 1f), as discalceātus unshod, diffibulāre to unclasp, disjungĕre disjoin, displicēre displease, dissociāre dissociate, dissuādēre, dissuade.(OED See link above)

Here the strongest sense is a removal or reversal of an action. I think the most interesting one here for us is displease, as this is the closest we get to a verb of an emotional state , similar to disgruntle.

Sense. 1.e however seems to have dis- as an intensifier. This only works according to the OED if the verb it is attaching to is already about splitting up or negating an action.

With verbs having already a sense of division, solution, separation, or undoing, the addition of dis- was naturally intensive, ‘away, out and out, utterly, exceedingly’, as in disperīre to perish utterly, dispudēre to be utterly ashamed (OED, see link above)

Note too that these appear to be Latin forms, many of which do not have high frequency contemporary English descendent! The OED asserts that meaning of dis- in disgruntled (though see final note) however is of this type.

Even though assigning the meaning to 1.e intensifier meaning, making the backformation gruntled meaning a less intense form of being sulky, we cannot be so sure.

Backformations rely on speakers realanalysing (playfully or seriously) the structure of words they plan to operate on. So for example in recent times marathon a how many miles long running race? Has been reanalysed so that –athon has become a new meaning bearing unit in English, so that danceathon, readathon, hopathon, telethon are readable as events of extreme duration entailing the activity of the first part of the new word. The original Greek marathon was simply a place name that seems to have its origin in a flower name.

Likewise, taking disgruntled which was originally dis+grunt+el, modern speakers of Engish can recognise dis- as a meaning bearing unit. BUT, and here is the big but, are probably not able to assign the original sense from the set of meanings it may contain. One reason for that is some of the senses are now less frequent than others, and I daresay that 1.e intensifier is the least productive of all. That is, few new words are coined with dis- having this sense. Instead, the current dominant meaning of dis- is derived from sense 1.d – the privative, negating meaning. (in fact the OED, gives this the dominant sense in the second group of senses.) Thus many speakers creating a backformation from disgruntle are going to apply this sense, whereby stripping the prefix from the form should restore a positive meaning, undoing the reversal. To put it schematically, if DIS+ X= – X then Dis+X –Dis = X. If disgruntled means sulky and sullen or put into a sulky mood, by this logic, gruntled should mean to be in a good mood, pleased, etc.

A problem with the analysis presented though is the nature of gruntle an archaic verb meaning ‘to grumble’. According to the OED, the the Dis- intensifier reading, in fact, all the group of senses, 1a-e all apply most readily to latinate forms in English. Though they suggest a 1.e meaning being attached to gruntle this is resolutely Germanic in origin, not latinate. The OED does suggest that the group 2 senses, including the one that produces, to be pleased as the meaning of the backformation, can be attached to any kind of verbal base – something that separates it from the first group of senses.


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