Is Couth a Real Word?

Burglar Burgling

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 illmannered, 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)


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About the Author

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

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