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 The Diary of a Word Nerd

  • Writer's pictureGrace Kidder

Go Forth and Be Gruntled!

The word "disgruntled" is a fairly well-known term meaning unhappy and annoyed. I'm sure many of us have experienced that feeling at some point or another. I most often see this word used in its adjective form, but it can also function as a verb. But did you know you can also be gruntled? It is, as you can imagine, the opposite of disgruntled—pleased and happy.

It stands to reason that if you can be disgruntled, you could be gruntled as well. After all, the prefix dis usually means "not" or "the opposite of," so it makes sense that there would be a version of the word without the prefix. In this case, this assumption holds true, but it's not always the case. Think of words like "distend" or "dispense": "distend" is not the opposite of "tend," and "pense" isn't even a word.

Which word came first?

You may think that the term "gruntle" was a word first and the prefix dis was added to create the opposite meaning. If so, you would be half right! Way back in the fourteenth century, "gruntle" was used to figuratively describe people moaning or grumbling (Piercy). "Wait a minute, Grace, that sounds kind of like what a disgruntled person would do. I thought you said dis made a word have the opposite meaning?" I did, and generally it does, but in this rare case dis was being used as an intensifier, making the word "disgruntled" mean "very gruntled."

"So when did 'gruntled' start meaning the opposite of 'disgruntled' then?" Great question. This use of the word actually started as more or less of a linguistic joke in the early 1900s, partly because there wasn't a good antonym of "disgruntled," but mostly because word nerds thought it was funny (Piercy). The first recorded example of "gruntled" used in this context can be found in Walter Prescott Webb's 1931 book The Great Plains:

"They were gruntled with a good meal and good conversation."

"Gruntled" is an excellent example of what's called a "back-formation." A back-formation is a word formed from an existing word, usually by removing a prefix or suffix. You probably know some other back-formations already, like "burgle" (from "burglar") and "donate" (from "donation"). Merriam-Webster has a really interesting article about back-formations that you can read here:…/gruntle-burgle-commentate….

What puts you in a gruntled mood? For me, I would definitely have to say dogs, cats, and chocolate. Oh, and words of course!

References: Dictionary, s.v. “gruntle,” accessed October 21, 2020.

Piercy, Joseph. 2019. A Word a Day: 365 Words to Augment Your Vocabulary. London: Michael O'Mara Books Limited. Google Books.

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