Ever since I discovered that ruth, meaning compassionate or merciful, was an antonym for ruthless as well as a woman’s name I’ve been on the lookout for other words with little-known or rarely-used roots. As it turns out, there are quite a number of words with the prefix dis that have little or an obsolete relationship to their roots. To use the current slang version of the prefix, they have been dissed.
Disgruntled-gruntled was one that came immediately to mind. I was surprised to learn that gruntled is an antonym for disgruntled. Despite the fact that it sounds like its original meaning—the grunt of a pig—it means to put in a good humor. Pigs grunt to communicate, but bark or squeal when agitated, so their grunting could be a happy sound.
Disgruntled sounds much more like its meaning—sulky dissatisfaction. So the next time your spouse or one of your children appear to be disgruntled, see if you can gruntle them. But what I’d really like to know is why we only seem to use disgruntled when we’re talking about unhappy employees?
Disburse or disperse. The Latin root is bursa, meaning purse. So it makes sense that disburse is used primarily to refer to money. When you disburse you’re taking money out of the purse—dis pursing it, literally. But if you tell the sales clerk you’re looking for a new bursa she’s likely to misunderstand you. Put bursa in the obsolete category, just like that outdated handbag you’re still using.
Discomfit-comfit, not to be confused with discomfort-comfort. OK, I know discomfit is not a word most of us use in everyday conversation. Even the Oxford English Dictionary notes its original meaning, “to defeat in battle,” is now rare.
Still, if you’re ever looking for a synonym for dejection or embarrassment, you could use discomfit. As in, Eleanor was discomfited that she used the men’s washroom by mistake. Its contemporary meaning is to “put into a state of perplexity” or embarrass.
But here’s what I find interesting–comfit has no relationship whatever with discomfit. According to M-W comfit is “candy consisting of a piece of fruit, root, nut, or a seed coated with sugar.” That’s a far cry from either discomfit or discomfort. Unless you consider sweets comfort food and without a daily dose of sugar you’re discomfited, or uncomfortable.