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Words with no opposite equivalent

Posted by James Briggs on April 02, 2003

This is another posting from the Times. I thought the answers to the posed question were so pertinent that they were worth sharing. I particularly liked the last one.

Q
Why are some words (such as "unruly"" "unkempt"" and "uncouth"") used only in the negative form? Has it always been thus" or were the positive forms (""ruly"", "kempt"" and ""couth"") ever used?

A
I don't know if P. G. Wodehouse was aware of it (Q&A, March 28), but "couthy" is a good Scots word which means pleasant, kind, in a "homely", woolly-jumper sort of way. It is in common use today.
Ross Burton, Milngavie, East Dunbartonshire

"Ravelling-up", meaning to gather up, tidy up, fold or roll up is an expression I recall from my Forties and Fifties childhood in the West Riding. For instance: "Ravel that all up before you go to bed."
Adrian Sanderson, London N6

"In my dotage I've become - defunct, inert, inane / Oh to be like yesteryear / 'funct', 'ert' and 'ane' again."
I don't know the origin of this rhyme, but it seems appropriate.
Anna Adam, West Byfleet, Surrey

When I was young in the 1940s, I delighted in this poem found in a Christmas annual.
Called A Very Descript Man, it is attributed to a J. H. Parker.

I am such a dolent man,
I eptly work each day;
My acts are all becilic,
I've just ane things to say.

My nerves are strung, my hair is kempt,
I'm gusting and I'm span:
I look with dain on everyone
And am a pudent man.

I travel cognito and make
A delible impression:
I overcome a slight chalance,
With gruntled self-possesion.

My, dignation would be great
If I should digent be:
I trust my vagance will bring
An astrous life for me.

Janet Wagon, Blewbury, Oxfordshire