Orphan Negatives: Words You Probably Think Exist


We talked about couth before — a word that was created via back-formation. I suppose it’s become common enough that we must grant it the right to exist. But what about other “words” that should reasonably be formed by eliminating an apparent prefix or suffix? Questions from a previous blog include:

  • Is a pleased person gruntled?
  • Are nice people ruthful?
  • May an intelligent person be described as a becile?
  • Would someone who makes himself obvious be going cognito?
  • If surgery is performed reattached a severed head, is it called a capitation?
  • If an arm or leg is reattached, is the patient being membered?
  • Is someone who can easily be overcome considered vincible?
  • If something is in motion, might it be described as ert?
  • If something causes harm, is it nocuous?

All of these are examples of what are called orphan negatives — words that have no positive form. There are more of these than you realize. In fact, author Jack Winter wrote the following story implementing a surprising number of orphan negatives in The New Yorker (July 25, 1994). I found it here.

How I Met My Wife

It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate.
I was furling my weildy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way.
I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknowst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened. And even though I had only swerving loyalty to her, my manners couldn’t be peccable. Only toward and heard-of behavior would do.
Fortunately, the embarrassment that my maculate appearance might cause was evitable. There were two ways about it, but the chances that someone as flappable as I would be ept enough to become persona grata or a sung hero were slim. I was, after all, something to sneeze at, someone you could easily hold a candle to, someone who usually aroused bridled passion.
So I decided not to risk it. But then, all at once, for some apparent reason, she looked in my direction and smiled in a way that I could make head or tails of.
I was plussed. It was concerting to see that she was communicado, and it nerved me that she was interested in a pareil like me, sight seen. Normally, I had a domitable spirit, but, being corrigible, I felt capacitated—as if this were something I was great shakes at—and forgot that I had succeeded in situations like this only a told number of times. So, after a terminable delay, I acted with mitigated gall and made my way through the ruly crowd with strong givings.
Nevertheless, since this was all new hat to me and I had not time to prepare a promptu speech, I was petuous. Wanting to make only called-for remarks, I started talking about the hors d’oeuvres, trying to abuse her of the notion that I was sipid, and perhaps even bunk a few myths about myself.
She responded well, and I was mayed that she considered me a savoury character who was up to some good. She told me who she was. “What a perfect nomer,” I said, advertently. The conversation became more and more choate, and we spoke at length to much avail. But I was defatigable, so I had to leave at a godly hour. I asked if she wanted to come with me. To my delight, she was committal. We left the party together and have been together ever since. I have given her my love, and she has requited it.


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About the Author

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

  1. Ender

    I loved this, very clever stuff. I found your story because I’m looking for false orphan negatives, that is, negatives whose positive forms exist, but are used so rarely that no one’s heard of them. Naturally, I looked up all your back-formed words, and was happily surprised to find that the majority of them actually are real words. Many are hundreds of years old, and a handful are actually older than their more popular negative forms! Here’s my list of those uncommon positives:

  2. Lydia Barr
    Lydia Barr12-23-2011

    This is very tricky to read. My brain automatically put all the prefixes back in and then took them out again in order to understand the meanings.

  3. Steve

    Love the Jack Winter story and will be passing this on.

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