For some of the students I teach, English is a second language. In education jargon, we call them ELLs, which stands for English Language Learners.
ELLs must become fluent to be able to read text books, course material and literature in school. Since I love words and books, I want them to love them too. But becoming fluent in English is a challenge. Every rule has several exceptions. For example, look at the crazy way the language can form the negative. The rule seems to be that prefixes such as anti-, dis-, ir- and un- when added to the root word, form the negative.
And, sure enough, that holds true for words such as antifreeze, discourage, irrelevant and uncomfortable. However, what is an ELL to do with dispute, disgruntle and disparage? They are negatives, it’s true, but -pute, -gruntle and -parage are not the root words of anything in English.
Stress is to put force on something, so one would think that distress would mean that there is less stress but it doesn’t work that way. Eustress is a coined word by Hans Selye that is supposed to mean the opposite of distress but sounds like a disease. At least, dis-ease follows the rule with dis-ease being the opposite of ease.
And then there are the words in which the root word means something different from the negative. To disabuse someone means to rid of a false notion or idea but to abuse that same person means to injure or hurt. To discuss something means to talk about it but to cuss means to curse it. In American English, at least. We won’t even venture into the conundrums of British or Indian English.
Distribute means to divide up but what does that have to do with tribute, which is to make payment to the state or ruler for peace or protection?
Sometimes the word and its apparent opposite aren’t. For example, to disseize means to unlawfully take possession of, and seize means to grasp. I suppose there is a subtle difference, but not a compelling one. To dissever something is to divide it, and to sever it is to separate it. We ought to pick one and stick to it, in my opinion.
And what’s with flammable and inflammable? The ELL person would correctly surmise that flammable means capable of being set on fire, and then, applying the usual rule for negatives, that inflammable would be the opposite. Right? Wrong. They both mean the same thing. At least nonflammable is clear.
But non- can be a perplexing prefix also. Take nonplus. You might think that it is a synonym for subtract, but you would be wrong. It means to baffle or confuse. How it got there from its Latin roots which mean “no further” is anyone’s guess.
A tort is a wrongful act according to the dictionary, so what would you think retort means? It doesn’t mean doing a wrongful act over again, that’s for sure. And distort doesn’t mean the opposite or doing a righteous act. Confused yet?
Ante- is a prefix meaning before, and thus antecedent means something that preceded another thing and antebellum typically is used to refer to the U.S. before the Civil War. Then anti- means the opposite, such as antitoxin and antiseptic which are agents to kill toxins and sepsis, which is anything that causes putrification. Then along comes antipasto, which doesn’t mean that you’re against pasta but is the appetizer that precedes the pasta course. Yikes!
Before I hear from language mavens everywhere, let me put in a disclaimer: I realize our words come from multiple sources—old French, medieval English, Latin and several aboriginal languages and that these roots contribute to the confusion that we now call modern English. But isn’t it time to streamline things a bit and make it easier for ourselves and the non-English speaking world to understand what we mean?
*A tip of the hat to Leah Eskin, food writer for the Chicago Tribune. She recently did a column about the reverse of negative words which sparked my interest in thumbing through my dictionary.