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October 24th, 2007

Disgruntled explained / DEfense and INsurance

by Barbara Wallraff

Abel Gleason, of Bangor, Maine, writes: “A syntactical quandary a friend and I stumbled upon at work today: If one may be either ‘disengaged’ or ‘engaged,’ ‘disavowed’ or ‘avowed,’ ‘discredited’ or ‘credited,’ why is it that no one is ever referred to as being simply ‘gruntled’?”

Dear Abel: Well, but to be “dismissed” isn’t the opposite of being “missed,” “dissent” isn’t the opposite of “sent” and “discussing” something isn’t the opposite of “cussing” it. “Dis-,” which we borrowed from Latin, used to have a lot of meanings besides negation or reversal, including “in different directions,” “between,” “separately” and “completely or excessively.” “Gruntle,” in the English of 400 or 500 years ago, was a verb, and it meant “to grunt or grumble frequently.” The “excessively” meaning of “dis-” is the one that figures in “disgruntled” -- a disgruntled person was an over-the-top complainer.

“Gruntle” eventually fell out of use, possibly because “grumble,” “complain,” “whine” and “carp,” among other words, do the same job. “Dis-” in the “excessively” sense all but vanished too. By 1938 the origins of both parts of “disgruntle” were obscure enough that the British humorist P.G. Wodehouse could write: “He spoke with a certain what-is-it in his voice, and I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”

Carl Ross, of Madison, Wis., writes: “Recently you discussed the mispronunciations ‘DEfense’ and ‘INsurance.’ These are not incorrect. ‘INsurance’ is simply a Southern U.S. pronunciation of the word, as supported by my 1983 Webster’s. Likewise, ‘DEfense’ is listed as an alternative pronunciation, and it has been commonly used in sports for many years. Could it simply be true that you are intolerant of people with backgrounds and interests different from yours?”

Dear Carl: No, that’s not it. I will plead guilty, though, to being ignorant about some backgrounds and interests. I wasn’t wrong that “deFENSE” and “inSURance” are the traditional standard pronunciations. In fact, most dictionaries still don’t acknowledge “INsurance.” And two of the four major current American ones specify that the “DEfense” pronunciation applies mainly to sports. The other books I rely on for pronunciation advice (“Garner’s Modern American Usage,” by Bryan A. Garner, and “The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations,” by Charles Harrington Elster) agree: It’s “deFENSE” except in sports contexts and “inSURance” in all contexts.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think dictionary makers understand that when most people look something up, they want to know what’s first-quality, not just OK. Dictionary makers seem to feel they ought to be helping users feel good about themselves and how they speak and write, as opposed to guiding them toward educated pronunciation and usage. No doubt they see themselves as crusaders for the idea that it’s fine to be from any kind of background -- and I agree with them that far. But I also think it’s important to recognize that there are standards for better and worse English in the culture as a whole and that strangers judge us by them. For instance, just now you judged me rather severely because I didn’t know that the two parts of a football team are best pronounced “DEfense” and “OFFense.” Now I’m better educated. Thank you for the information!

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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