Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Off With Her Head!

A caller asked why the word used for decapitation is beheaded instead of deheaded. This brings up the complicated issue of negative prefixes.

There are many negative prefixes from which to choose; I have a section on them in my Word Parts Dictionary. The ones that actually get chosen are often sheer accidents of history. In other words, we don’t have a rigid and predictable set of rules to determine the choice when we negate something. While there are a few trends (for instance, un- tends to mean never or not and mis- tends to mean badly), we need to use a dictionary to determine whether a logically possible negative prefix actually made it into a word and survived.

Beheaded came from an Old English word and first appeared in a document around the year 1,000. Unexpectedly, the word unheaded coexisted from the 1400s to the 1700s, influenced by a Dutch word meaning to remove the head. The word dehead is occasionally used as a synonym for deadhead, a term used by gardeners to describe the removal of dead or spent flowers to encourage more flowering or to improve the general appearance of the plant. [Sorry, Jerry.]

A few examples will illustrate how tricky the process is. If someone is unarmed, she never had a weapon on her person; if she is disarmed, she had one on her person, but it was taken away. If a device is unused, it’s probably still in its original packaging; if it is disused, it is no longer in use, but it could always be misused.

Unpolitical, apolitical, and nonpolitical pretty much cover the same territory. If you are uninterested, you simply don’t care; if you are disinterested, you are impartial and free from selfish motive. To be unfrocked is to be defrocked. An unregulated activity is not subject to rules, which also makes it nonregulated; if it is deregulated, the rules have been lifted, but if it is misregulated, the rules have been improperly applied.

Unbegotten means not generated, and misbegotten means ill-conceived. Nontrained help is untrained, which may be slightly safer than a mistrained person, but it takes a locomotive to detrain.

And on and on it goes.

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