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Unpaired word

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Title: Unpaired word  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Opposite (semantics), Reference desk/Archives/Language/2015 April 17, Word play, Defective verb, Loanword
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Unpaired word

An unpaired word is one that, according to the usual rules of the language, would appear to have a related word but does not. Such words usually have a prefix or suffix that would imply that there is an antonym, with the prefix or suffix being absent or opposite.

Unpaired words can be the result of one of the words falling out of popular usage, or can be created when only one word of a pair is borrowed from another language, in either case yielding an accidental gap, specifically a morphological gap. Other unpaired words were never part of a pair; their starting or ending phonemes, by accident, happen to match those of an existing morpheme, leading to a reinterpretation.

The classification of a word as "unpaired" can be problematic, as a word thought to be unattested might reappear in real-world usage or be created, for example, through humorous back-formation. In some cases a paired word does exist, but is quite rare or archaic (no longer in general use).

Such words – and particularly the back-formations, used as nonce words – find occasional use in wordplay, particularly light verse. There are a handful of notable examples in modern English.


  • Unpaired words in English 1
  • See also 2
  • References 3
  • External links 4
    • Examples 4.1
  • References 5

Unpaired words in English

Word Paired word(s) Notes
Disambiguate *Ambiguate Not attested; derived from dis- + ambigu(ous) + -ate in the mid-20th century
Disconsolate Consolate Derived from the Latin consolatus; rarely used
Disgruntled **Gruntled Conscious jocular back-formation, circa 1938
Disheveled, Dishevelled *Sheveled, *Shevelled Not attested; from the Old French deschevelé
Feckless Feckful Rarely used antonym
Gormless (from gaumless) Gaumy Form "gormful" does not exist; form "gaumy" is rare and highly region-specific
Indomitable Domitable Rarely used antonym
Ineffable Effable Rarely used antonym
Inert *Ert From Latin iners, meaning "without skill".
Intrepid Trepid Rarely used antonym (form trepidatious, with redundant adjective ending, is uncommon but less rare)
Innocent Nocent Not an exact antonym; rarely used
Innocuous Nocuous Rarely used antonym (almost entirely replaced by descendant noxious)
Postpone Prepone Only used in Indian English
Reckless Reckful "Reck" (n) meaning "care" is archaic
Ruthless Ruthful Rarely used antonym
Uncouth **Couth From Old English cunnan meaning "well-known" or "familiar"; rarely used
Ungainly Gainly Rarely used antonym
Unkempt Kempt Rarely used antonym (replaced by passive participle combed as comb replaced kemb; meaning of combed did not undergo homologous extension to cover grooming and hygiene generally)
Unruly Ruly Rarely used antonym
Unstinting Stinting Rarely used antonym
Untoward Toward Not an antonym (untoward evolved from figurative alterations of "toward" involving deviation from norms; toward acquired no homologous figurative meanings)
Unwieldy Wieldy Rarely used antonym

*Words not attested or very rare in English usage.

**Jocular or facetious coinages as conscious back-formation.

See also


  • "Unpaired words" at World Wide Words
  • "Absent antonyms" at 2Wheels: The Return

External links

  • Words with no opposite equivalent, posted by James Briggs on April 02, 2003 at The Phrase Finder
  • Brev Is the Soul of Wit, Ben Schott, April 19, 2010, 6:08 am


  • Parker, J. H. "The Mystery of The Vanished Positive" in Daily Mail, Annual for Boys and Girls, 1953, Ed. French, S. Daily Mail: London pp. 42–43 – article on the topic, ending in a short poem "A Very Descript Man" using humorous opposites of unpaired words
  • , July 25, 1994, p. 82The New YorkerJack Winter, Shouts & Murmurs, “How I Met My Wife,” uses many unpaired words for humorous effect
  • Semantic Enigmas: "I once read a nonsense poem that removed the apparently negative prefixes of words like 'inept', 'inert' and 'uncouth' to make new words: 'ept', 'ert' and 'couth'. I've searched for the poem since, but no luck. Can anyone help?", The Guardian – cites "Gloss" by David McCord and "A Dream of Couth" in The Game of Words by Willard R. Espy


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