Is Couth a Word?

Burglar burgling

A burglar burgling.

Have you ever used the word couth? It wasn’t long ago that the word was unrecognized by dictionaries — what most people mean when they say a word doesn’t exist (which is odd, because if you can say it and spell it, and if it means something to at least one person, it certainly exists, right?).

It’s in most dictionaries now though, and it means just what you’d think: the opposite of uncouth. It means  classy; cultured, civilized, genteel.

But not long ago the word was mostly used facetiously. Everyone (at least everyone with couth) understood that uncouth meant boorish, rude, or ill-mannered, but that its apparent opposite – couth – was not a real word. So, it was used as a joke:

“Whatsa matter? Ain’t you got no couth?”

Either folks didn’t get the joke, or they just assumed that uncouth was formed by adding the negating prefix un- to the root word couth. Pretty soon, couth became part of common usage, and in time, most dictionaries added it. (Apparently not all dictionaries, however, since every time I type it, my word processing software puts that little, red, squiggly line under it.)

What’s interesting is that people were right — sort of. Uncouth did come from adding un- to couth. But it was a different couth. Bear with me.

Couth is an Old English word for known or familiar. If someone new came to dinner, he would be described as uncouth. Originally, this did not necessarily carry any negative connotations. But foreigners who weren’t familiar with local customs would so often appear crass or uncivilized that in time uncouth came to be equated more with uncultured behavior than with the unfamiliarity of the visitor. For whatever reason, uncouth in this sense survived the centuries, while its base word meaning familiar passed into oblivion.

So, one kind of couth produced the uncouth of today, which has only recently produced a quite different couth. This process of coining a word out of a mistaken assumption about an existing word’s origin is known as back-formation and it’s fairly common.

According to David Feldman’s book, Who Put the Butter in Butterfly?, that’s how we got the word burgle.  People mistakenly assumed that  burglar is someone who engages in burgling (Tolkien engages in this kind of wordplay in The Hobbit).  But it’s not so. The noun existed long before the verb form. The first known use of burglar was in 1541, while burgle was first used around 1870.

Some other examples of back-formations (courtesy Wikipedia) include:
  • automate (from automation)
  • aviate (from aviator)
  • bartend (from bartender)
  • book-keep (from book-keeping)
  • brainwash (from brainwashing)
  • bulldoze (from bulldozer)
  • bus (from busboy)
  • choreograph (from choreography)
  • commentate (from commentator)
  • creep (from creepy)
  • destruct (from destruction)
  • donate (from donation)
  • edit (from editor)
  • escalate (from escalator)
  • emote (from emotion)
  • funk (from funky)
  • grovel (from groveling)
  • haze (from hazy)
  • isolate (from isolated)
  • legislate (from legislator)
  • manipulate (from manipulation)
  • opine (from opinion)
  • proofread (from proofreader)
  • spectate (from spectator)
  • tase (from taser)
  • upholster (from upholstery)


Like this article? Please consider sharing it or subscribing to our weekly email update! Post any comments and questions below. Bloggers love comments.

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Itamar Serpa Fernandes
    Itamar Serpa Fernandes03-20-2017

    Hi there to every one, the contents existing at this website are actually remarkable for people knowledge, well,
    keep up the good work fellows.

  2. Foster

    Do you mind if I quote a few of your articles as long as I provide credit
    and sources back to your weblog? My blog is in the exact same niche as yours and
    my visitors would genuinely benefit from a lot of the information you present here.
    Please let me know if this ok with you. Regards!

  3. Augusto de Arruda Botelho
    Augusto de Arruda Botelho03-16-2017

    Yes! Finally something about Augusto de ARruda Botelho.

  4. cartier solo ronde xl replique
    cartier solo ronde xl replique03-03-2017

    cartierbraceletlove *emotions inspired by Hollywood romantic movies *
    cartier solo ronde xl replique

  5. love bangle yellow faux
    love bangle yellow faux03-03-2017

    cartierbraceletlove i love this! i think she is making a summer pie filling!
    love bangle yellow faux

  6. imitazione orologio cartier pasha
    imitazione orologio cartier pasha03-03-2017

    cartierbraceletlove I seriously need to make this! Perfect for munching and Friends watching!
    imitazione orologio cartier pasha

  7. calibre de cartier prix imitation
    calibre de cartier prix imitation03-03-2017

    cartierbraceletlove dude, this is wonderfull im so glad and thankful that u wrote this. it worked perfectly.
    calibre de cartier prix imitation

  8. replique cartier calibre montre
    replique cartier calibre montre03-03-2017

    cartierbraceletlove hi at first i thought biscoff was butter but it already has butter could you please tell me a substitute ….i have never seen anything by that name before…
    replique cartier calibre montre

  9. Zbo2

    Appreciate this! When I was younger we definitely made the sorts of comments about couth that you mention.

  10. Bob Munck
    Bob Munck04-05-2016

    From Robert Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth” (1947):

    As Time and Space come bending back to shape this star-specked scene,
    The tranquil tears of tragic joy still spread their silver sheen;
    Along the Grand Canal still soar the fragile Towers of Truth;
    Their fairy grace defends this place of Beauty, calm and couth.

  11. Katherine

    Hi Brian,

    Thank you! I wasn’t sure couth was a word, and even here when I wrote it, the program changed it to “cough.” Your explanation was enjoyable and informative. I’m a counselor, and have need of more precise language than the words often in common usage. This is very helpful. Thank you again!

  12. Krishna

    Interesting blog!

    About 15 years ago, when I was looking for a name for my company, I came across the word “couth” and that “uncouth” is more commonly used while the base word seem to have passed into oblivion. I named my company CouthIT — a humble effort to bring back the beautiful base word back into circulation.

Leave a Reply

If you like a post, please take a second to click "like," and comment as often as you like.
We promise not to correct your grammar!