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Gruntling the Disgruntled

Updated on April 24, 2011

Your Friendly Neighborhood Grammar Geek, Volume VI

Many folks have asked me to explain why a person who is content with his lot in life is not said to be ‘gruntled,’ why a neatly dressed and coiffed person is not described as ‘heveled,’ and why confident folks are not ‘mayed.’ I suspected that the answer would be a simple one, and would be found in some obscure etymological fact that that, when uncovered, would make everything seem quite obvious. I thought that I’d be able to point to a linguistic phenomenon like back-formation or false etymology and say, “See? There’s the problem right there.”

Turns out the stories are much more complicated, and therefore much more interesting. Since they're so complicated, and different for different words, I don't have the time or the space to devote to disheveled, dismayed, etc, this time around. We'll be examining disgruntled only.

No, it’s Not the Study of Guys Named Phil.

Philology is made of two Greek words, philos, meaning love or affection, and logos, meaning words or reason. In other sciences, like geology, biology, etc, the compound carries the meaning “the study of (prefix),” but in philology, it carries the meaning, “a love of the written word.” In Great Britain, the term (along with many of its practices) went out of fashion after the First World War, and has largely been replaced by “historical linguistics,” but in the US, there is still a distinction drawn between the two. Professor Tolkien was a philologist, and resisted the change.

Where the Information Is

Ultimately, I had to go to the source of sources for anyone looking to find out why an English word exists in its current form: the Oxford English Dictionary. This ongoing project got its start in 1857, when the London Philological Society decided that all the existing English dictionaries were pretty lame, and thought that they could do better. They wanted to do a complete re-examination of the language, from medieval times up to modern English. They knew it was going to be a big project, and expected that it would take about ten years to do it properly. After about five years of work, they realized that they’d underestimated by a lot.

They’d only gotten as far as ant.

And they’re still not finished.

Oh, the OED, as the dictionary is known in scholarly circles, is published and all, but the English language is constantly evolving, adding new words like blog, new meanings for old words like tweet, and even adding new morphemes (word elements) like the prefix franken-. (Add franken- to any noun, and it becomes something cobbled together from spare parts, as in frankenbike, or frankenputer). So the OED is still under construction, and they release a new edition every so often. For these reasons, it’s the go-to book for anyone with a question about an English word. But it’s also important to remember that the OED is a work in progress. Keep this in mind as you read what I found out. Since there's so much information to consider, we will only look at disgruntled.

Parsing “Disgruntled”

Disgruntled is, when you break it down, the word grunt with a bunch of other stuff stapled onto it. The suffix -le is a diminutive, so grunt + -le = gruntle, a little grunt. It also can mean “to make a small grunting noise,” or “to grumble or complain.” But that’s not its only meaning. Gruntle can also be a noun meaning a pig’s snout, or figuratively, a person’s face, as in Robert Burns’ poem, "Scotch Drink" (as cited in the OED).

May gravels round his blather wrench,
An' gouts torment him, inch by inch,
What twists his gruntle wi' a glunch
O' sour disdain,
Out owre a glass o' whisky-punch
Wi' honest men!

Now, knowing that gruntle can mean face, one might be tempted to conclude that disgruntle might be roughly synonymous with the phrase “put [one] out of countenance,” as in Holofernes’ reply to Biron in LovesLaboursLost: “I will not be put out of countenance,” that is, “I’m not going to lose my composure.” Let’s set this theory on the back burner for the moment, because there’s a problem with it: according to the OED, the dis- in disgruntled does not mean what we think it means.

Usually, dis- is a negative marker, as in disassemble or disrespect. This is why we get comedians saying stuff like, “The post office has issued a statement to the effect that most of their workers are perfectly gruntled, and there is no danger to the general public.” But in this case, the OED defines the prefix dis- as an intensifier, with its own definition:

Dis-5:….In the same way, English has several verbs in which dis- adds intensity to words having already a sense of undoing, as in disalter, disaltern, disannul.

Intensifiers that look like negative markers are surprisingly common, and often hilarious.

‘Infamous’ Doesn’t Mean ‘Not Famous,’ but…

The Amigos’ mistake notwithstanding, prefixes that look like negative markers can be intensifiers. Take the word inflammable. If something is inflammable, you’d better not put it next to anything hot, or it might burst into flame. The problem is that the prefix in- usually—in fact, almost always—means “not,” as in insane, incompetent, and inarticulate. When most people see the word inflammable, they’ll naturally assume that whatever’s in the can won’t burn, unless they happen to know that inflammable is an exception. Or perhaps they already know what’s in the can, but in that case they’ll probably wonder why it doesn’t say flammable. This problem can be a dangerous one if the reader is ignorant of both the inflammable exception and the contents of the can, and it’s a good example of prescriptive grammar acting as a barrier to clear communication.

So apparently dis-5 + gruntled means, more or less, “very gruntled.” But there are a few ambiguities surrounding this definition of disgruntled.

Transitive vs Intransitive

No, intransitive doesn’t mean “more than transitive.” A transitive verb is something you can do to something or someone else. Or, in grammar geek speak, a transitive verb takes an object. Many verbs can be either transitive or intransitive. For example, I can see (intransitive), and I can see you (transitive). But some verbs can’t be transitive. For example, I can yell, but I can’t yell you. I can yell at you, but that’s not the same thing. In the same way, I can gruntle at something (make complaining noises about, or because of, something), but I can’t gruntle something, nor can I gruntle someone. Not only does the sentence, “Bob gruntled Tom,” sound odd to our ears, there is no mention in the OED of a transitive usage for gruntle.

This is important, because, the OED explicitly defines disgruntled as a transitive verb, meaning “to put into a sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humour.” The first usage in print that the OED cites is this: “Hodge was a little disgruntled at that inscription.” But this example itself presents another difficulty.

Testing for Transitive-ness

Let’s take a look at some examples of disgruntled used as a transitive verb in the active voice:

“If you quit the football team, you will disgruntle your teammates.”

This construction probably sounds odd to most English speakers.

“Mr. McGee, don’t disgruntle me. You wouldn’t like me when I’m disgruntled.”

In the above example, the first sentence sounds very odd. The second sentence is slightly better, but most English speakers will still feel that disgruntled has been misused. Why is this important?

The difference between active voice and passive voice is best explained by example. “Tom was run over by a car,” is an example of passive voice. “A car ran Tom over,” is active voice. This is important to us because not only the OED’s examples, but all the examples I could find out in the real world, have disgruntled being used in passive voice. “The workers were disgruntled after the new policy was implemented,” for example. But there are no examples (that I could find, anyway) that look like this: “The new policy disgruntled the workers.” This is problematic because most transitive verbs can be easily used in the active voice, as in, “I shot the sherriff,” or, “We ate spaghetti.” Also, an active voice usage of disgruntled just doesn’t sound right: “The new policy disgruntled the workers,” probably sounds odd to most English speakers.

Adjectival Functions of Verbs

It’s very common in English for a verb to take on the functions of other parts of speech, as the verb ride switches around in these examples: “Mary rides her horse every day,” and, “Riding is Mary’s favorite pastime.” In the first example, ride is a verb; it’s what Mary does. But in the second example, even though we know that riding is something you do, it functions as a noun. It’s in the subject’s position at the front of the sentence. It can also take an adjective (adjectives modify nouns, remember) as in: “Reckless riding can get you killed.” This kind of noun-y use of a verb + -ing is called a gerund.

Getting back to disgruntled, even if we accept that it’s a verb, we must also acknowledge that it clearly also serves an adjectival function in modern speech. It describes people—Wal-Mart employees, postal workers, etc.—who are unhappy. When a verb takes on an adjectival function, as in the phrase, “disgruntled postal workers,” it’s called an adjectival participle. It works the same way as tired or fried, which can each be used as verbs or as adjectives, like so: "The boy tired quickly. Soon he was so tired he fell asleep. In the morning, he fried two eggs, and ate the fried eggs for breakfast."

The problem with this is that usually, a verb can readily switch from a verbial function to an adjectival function and back again. However, neither gruntled nor disgruntled can be used both ways equally. In this example, “The man gruntled in annoyance. He was so gruntled that he walked off the job,” the first usage is fine, but the second sounds false. In this one, “The man disgruntled in annoyance. He was so disgruntled that he walked off the job,” the first usage sounds wrong, while the second is acceptable.

If Dis-5 is an Intensifier, What Exactly is it intensifying?

The OED tells us that dis-5 is used with verbs, and that it adds intensity. Given this, we must assume that disgruntled derives from the verb version of gruntle, and not the noun at all. We're also told that gruntle is

1...said of swine, rarely of persons except in dialect, usually ‘gruntle at’ or ‘gruntle against.’

2-To grumble, murmur, or complain.” 

Given the above, the sentence, “The workers usually grumble at mandatory overtime,” sounds fine to modern ears. We can substitute gruntle for grumble, and both syntactically and semantically it works, though it sounds archaic or provincial. But this usage is intransitive. The workers are merely gruntling, that is, complaining. They’re not gruntling mandatory overtime, they’re gruntling at the mandatory overtime, which is syntactically different: mandatory overtime is the object of the preposition at, not the object of the verb gruntle.

If dis-5 were added to the verb gruntle, it ought to mean something like “really complain” or “loudly complain.” But if we substitute disgruntle for grumble in our example, we get, “The workers usually disgruntle at mandatory overtime,” which may work syntactically and semantically, but no such usage is cited in the OED, and I could not find any occurrence of it either. Plus, it just sounds weird.

How Come Disgruntling Only Seems to Occurr in the Past?

Most verbs can be done in both the present and the past: “They fry eggs for breakfast. Yesterday they fried eggs for breakfast.” This is also true of the verb gruntle: “They gruntle at mandatory overtime. Yesterday they gruntled at mandatory overtime.” But this seems to fall apart when you add dis-5 to get disgruntle: “They disgruntle at mandatory overtime. Yesterday they disgruntled at mandatory overtime.” Both sentences sound odd. The second one seems better if we add the modal auxiliary verb to be: “Yesterday they were disgruntled at mandatory overtime.” But the semantic value seems to have shifted: the earlier examples all have the workers being as annoyed today as they were yesterday. The last example, however, seems to imply that while yesterday the workers were annoyed, something has changed, and today they’re okay with the mandatory overtime. Also, the word’s function as a verb has disappeared, to be replaced by an adjectival function.

And Hang On: What was That About a 'Sense of Undoing?'

Even if the concerns mentioned above are ignored, the decision to call the dis- in disgruntled an intensifier starts to seem a bit shaky when we examine it more closely. Looking at the definition for dis-5 again, we’ll recall that it “…adds intensity to words having already a sense of undoing[emphasis mine].” Well, if that’s the case, and if no definition of gruntled in the OED conveys any sense of undoing whatsoever, how than can the dis- in disgruntled be dis-5?

Wait, What was the Original Question Again?

Oh, yeah, the whole satisfied-people-not-being-gruntled thing! Sorry about that. This article is kind of a roundabout way of saying it, but the simple answer is that the root word, grunt, when used of people, has generally carried a meaning of dissatisfaction, or at best, grudging acceptance (as in, "He grunted assent.") Knowing this, we know that gruntled won't mean happy or satisfied no matter how hard we hit it with the grammar hammer, and such usage is in fact an example of back-formation. I'm sorry to have led you on such a long and winding path to get here, but like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, you probably wouldn't have believed me if I'd simply told you that at the beginning.

The OED is a Work in Progress

Now, I don’t mean to set myself up as a more accomplished philologist than the folks who are working on the OED, but considering the difficulties with the OED’s definition of disgruntled that we’ve just seen, perhaps this word would be worth revisiting. As a transitive verb, its usage is very limited; virtually nobody currently uses it that way. Even after an extensive search, I have not found an example in print of disgruntle without the past tense marker -ed. I also could find no use of gruntled in an adjectival capacity without the dis- prefix, which the OED says is dis-5, an intensifier. But the words that dis-5 intensifies are words that carry “a sense of undoing,” which neither gruntle nor gruntled carries. The OED's definition seems incomplete and unsatisfying.

Of course, the idea that disgruntled is somehow related to the expression "out of countenance" has turned out to be without merit. If I'd stuck to it, and if people had believed it, it would have become a false etymology that some future grammar geek would have had to de-bunk. I'm not saying the OED is wrong and I'm right. Not even a little bit. I'm merely suggesting that this definition ought to be reconsidered.

It is of course possible that the folks working on the OED are already reconsidering their definition of disgruntled for the next edition. It is even possible that a more recent edition than the one at my local library already has a more robust definition. But it’s also possible that the OED folks have had bigger fish to fry. The English language is, as mentioned above, constantly changing and evolving. New words borrowed or coined every day, and new meanings are always being assigned to existing words. It may be that this is the first time these difficulties with the OED’s definition of disgruntled have been considered. If next year’s edition does contain a new note on disgruntled, remember: you read it here first, from your Friendly Neighborhood Grammar Geek.


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    • lmmartin profile image

      lmmartin 6 years ago from Alberta and Florida

      I am gruntling with content over this fascinating exploration of the meaning of gruntle and disgruntle. What an odd-sounding word it is, conjuring up visions of Chaucer-speak. Thanks. Lynda

    • DTR0005 profile image

      DTR0005 6 years ago from Midwest

      Nice work Jeff. Though it doesn't show in my forum posts, I am have quite the interest in grammar. Try explaining the word "without" to a non-native English speaker learning English and see how high the eyebrows raise up and they attempt to dissect this compound word.

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 6 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Hi, Linda and DTR! Thanks for the kind words.

      It's interesting that you should mention Chaucer, Linda. I've just cracked open Canterbury Tales for a re-read. (It's been a _very_ long time.) The first recorded usage of /disgruntled/ is from some time in the 1600s, though; quite a while after Chaucer, but almost contemporaneous with Shakespeare.

      DTR, /without/ makes obvious sense in one of its meanings--the one that means the opposite of /within/, as in, "I cleaned my car both within and without." But in its more common usage, where it means the opposite of /with/, as in, "My car won't run without gas," it gets weirder and weirder the more I think about it. You may just have given me an idea for another series of articles....

    • tom hellert profile image

      tom hellert 6 years ago from home


      Really cool word play and origination cool stuff. I mean that- it was great.


    • The Frog Prince profile image

      The Frog Prince 6 years ago from Arlington, TX

      Now I had to watch the video twice. Sometimes we mean one thing when we utter another huh?

      Excellent Hub.

      The Frog

    • sunchild28 profile image

      sunchild28 6 years ago from Nigeria

      excellent hub, i have really been asking myself how the dictionary was written and behold, you have given me an insight.

    • kittythedreamer profile image

      Nicole Canfield 5 years ago from the Ether

      I use the word "infamous" a LOT...and I always wondered about that word! Great stuff, Jeff. I love etymology and recently wrote a hub on some of our food words...

      Thought you might find it entertaining. Anyways, voted up and awesome and funny!

    • Jeff Berndt profile image

      Jeff Berndt 5 years ago from Southeast Michigan

      Yes, I did find it entertaining, especially the use of "eat-ymology." :)

    • livelonger profile image

      Jason Menayan 5 years ago from San Francisco

      I LOVED this Hub. Fascinating and funny! I've always found some back formations amusing. My favorite is still "underwhelm" (don't take that as a hint about your Hub!).

    • profile image

      Mike 5 years ago

      Kind of a roundabout way of explining it, but I'm glad you included all the reasons. It's easier to remember stuff when you know why.

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