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shameless pleading


Cuffs are so coming back.  You’ll see.

Dear Word Detective:  My wife used the word “dishevelled” in describing my 20-year old suit.  Can I make myself “sheveled,” or “heveled,” or is this simply another lost positive?  I’ll be very gruntled if you can help me out here. — Charlie.

That sounds like my suit (note the singular).  I know it makes me look like a time-traveler from Planet Cheapskate, but I figure that since lapel styles seem to swing between wide and narrow every ten years or so, people will just assume I’m dancing on the bleeding edge of fashion.  I should note that this strategy probably works best if you live in rural Ohio and wear the suit only to weddings and funerals.

As for “disheveled,” if we ever get around to completely overhauling the English language, I would strongly argue in favor of doing away with prefixes such as “dis,” “de,” “un,” and “in” that usually, but not always, signal negation of the rest of the word.  That “not always” is the fly in the ointment.

I’ve written in the past about the word “inflammable,” for instance, which means “likely to catch fire” (from the Latin “inflammare,” the source of our “inflame”).  But since the prefix “in” usually signals “not” (e.g., “invisible” means “not visible”), folks just after World War II were afraid that some people would think “inflammable” means “fireproof” and insulate their homes with gasoline, or something.  So they pushed for adoption of the clearer “flammable” and “non-flammable” instead.  The effort actually worked, and today you rarely see anything labeled “inflammable.”

Similarly, “disgruntled” doesn’t mean “not gruntled,” as if “gruntled” meant “pleased.”  “Gruntled” actually means “angry” (from an animal grunting in anger), and the “dis” in this case is an intensifier, making “disgruntled” mean “very gruntled,” or “really ticked off.”

“Disheveled” (in the US we spell it with only one “l,” but the Brits use two) is another case where “dis” doesn’t exactly meant “not.”  The word “disheveled” is used today to mean “unkempt, untidy, messy or disorderly,” whether in a literal sense (“Her whole appearance was haggard and disheveled,” Trollope, 1862) or figuratively (“In vehement diction, but disheveled grammar,” Saturday Review, 1858).

We adopted “disheveled” from the Old French word “descheveler,” which meant specifically “to undo or disorder the hair” (from “des,” apart, plus “chevel,” hair).  So the “dis” element actually means “apart” or “undone,” not “not.”  (If it meant “not,” then “disheveled” would probably mean “bald.”)

When “disheveled” first appeared in English in the 15th century, it meant literally “with your hair mussed up, hanging loose,” and was usually used to describe women in moments of considerable stress (“Growing distracted with griefe …she went up and downe … all discheveled with her haire about her eares,” 1653).  It wasn’t until the 17th century that “disheveled” came to be applied to untidiness in non-hair-related respects.

Since the “shevel” in “dishevelled” refers to hair and not some lofty standard of neatness, there’s really no way to “shevel” your suit, unless you’d like to bring it to our house and let a few of our cats sleep on it.  Judging by my experience, it would be completely “sheveled” in less than ten minutes.

1 comment to Disheveled

  • Tracey

    Very funny, perfect explanation kept us amused while drinking rose on the balcony on holiday in Montenegro. My 18 old daughter wishes she had never used the word sheveled !

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