Inevitable, Inept, and the Cranberry Morpheme

In the press for some time now, one Republican has been singled out as the inevitable winner of that seemingly interminable contest.

I have no dog in this show, but the coverage recently got me thinking: regardless of your political persuasion (or your agreement with the opening assertion), what about that word itself? If something is inevitable, what are the other possible outcomes? Would the opposite of inevitable be…evitable?

In fact, it’s not. Inevitable is one of a category of English words that don’t have obvious opposite forms. Or, a better way to put it might be that these words have negative forms, but no positive forms. The in- of inevitable shows inversion, denoting an opposite. Yet there is no “evitable” as a word in English. (To be completely accurate, “evitable” is indeed a word, but it’s obscure and not colloquially used: try using it and see what kind of raised eyebrows, disapproving looks, and laughs you get. The same applies to many of these words.)

There are a fair number of words with this characteristic (at least several dozen – you can  come up with a few if you think about it for a minute: insidious, inept, and so on). They’re not all in- formations. Some use un- (uncouth, unkempt), or non- (nonplussed, nonchalant), or dis- (dismayed, dismember), or mis- (misanthrope, misnomer). I haven’t exhausted all possibilities while researching this topic, and wouldn’t be surprised to find a few other forms, maybe an ir- or two and perhaps some others.

It turns out that linguists (or perhaps it’s philologists…it’s hard for us non-specialists to keep them straight) have a name that applies to this kind of word. (Linguists are good at that: like rhetoricians, they have a word for just about everything.)

Actually, they have several terms. One is bound morpheme. A morpheme is the smallest piece of a word that can stand alone. For example, while inaccurate has two morphemes – in- and accurate, each of which has enough meaning to stand alone, the evitable part of inevitable cannot stand alone – which is why it’s a bound morpheme. Words like this are also called fossilized terms or fossilized morphemes, an apt description because the base morpheme is a sort of linguistic fossil that has been preserved only in a negative sense after the positive form has died out (couth and kempt, in uncouth and unkempt, are good examples).

A colorful term that has also come into use for these words is cranberry morpheme. The cran in cranberry is a bound morpheme, not existing on its own, so using it as a descriptive exemplar of the category works well. It’s not a negative missing it’s positive form, but the same morphological issue is in play.

Putting this post together brought back a few memories: there was a long-running in-joke at my high school regarding the opposite of inept. Those who were not inept were considered to be “ept.” But ept isn’t an accepted word: it exists only as a jokey backformation negative of inept (although it could be considered a variation of apt). Without knowing it, and completely lacking the language to describe them, we’d stumbled on this interesting category of words.

I’ll close with a few links: others have already compiled useful lists (and some useful commentary) on this subject. Take a look at a few of these pages for additional information.

Grammarphobia.com provides several useful pages, including this post on nonchalant and this one on the cranberry morpheme.

Fun With Words provides a list of negatives without positives.

About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for nearly 15 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education. He has taught writing at the university level for a number of years.
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One Response to Inevitable, Inept, and the Cranberry Morpheme

  1. Pingback: A myriad explained — in honor of 10,000 hits | thebettereditor

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