Mind the lexical gap, and the cranberry morpheme

'Unpaired' words can be a source of fun, but these 'lonely negatives' have a real place in language.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
Cranberry vines grow berries on Jeff LaFleur's Mayflower Cranberries farm, on August 24, 2012 in Plympton, Massachusetts. 'Unpaired' words, like the 'cran' of cranberry, can be a source of fun in language.

When a linguistic issue so captures the public imagination that even the "Car Talk" guys are talking about it, it's time to pay heed.

They were having fun the other day with a New Yorker piece from 1994, "How I Met My Wife," by Jack Winter.

It's a textbook example of "unpaired" words. No, that's not a typo for "impaired." Unpaired words are those that seem to be missing a partner.

"It had been a rough day," Mr. Winter wrote, "so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way."

The story ends happily ever after, a tale of "requited" love. But it makes us ask, if we say "nonchalant," why isn't there a "chalant"? But there isn't, any more than there's a "gruntled" or a "consolate." (No, wait: Isn't that like an embassy? But I digress.)

Not long ago, Judith B. Herman had a chortlesome piece on Mental Floss about "12 Lonely Negative Words" whose partners either have faded away or never existed in the first place. There was, she reports, a delible along with indelible into the 18th century, for instance. Cessant had a brief run opposite to incessant about the same time. Dolent once played opposite to indolent in the latter's original sense of "painless." Nowadays indolent means lazy or disinclined to exertion, and dolent is no more. Disgust, though, never had an opposite gust.

Wikipedia uses "accidental gap" and "lexical gap" as umbrella terms for these and other types of missing words. We have arrive and arrival, and propose and proposal; why not describal or derival? (Is that a whiff of Wikipedia wistfulness I detect?)

No discussion of unpaired words is complete without mentioning what specialists call the "cranberry morpheme."

A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in language – a word or a combining element, such as "un" or "anti." The "blue" of "blueberry" is an "unbound morpheme," free to stand alone or recombine with other words to form, for instance, "bluebird." But the "cran" of cranberry is a "bound morpheme," pretty much stuck with "berry."

Unpaired words can be a surefire source of wordplay fun. But the "lonely negatives" have a real place in language, because some things may be most effectively described in terms of what they are not.

The same principle can be applied in drawing. An artist can sometimes render an object most effectively by delineating the negative spaces – the "white spaces," so to speak – around it. In an art class once, my fellow students and I struggled with proportions and perspectives as we each drew a straight-backed chair. But we found if we drew the "not-chair" parts right – the spaces around the rungs and the legs, for instance – the chair itself would somehow suddenly materialize on the paper.

To take the idea one step further: The idea of drawing "around" the thing rather than drawing the thing itself can be applied to solving problems. If you describe the characteristics of the right solution clearly enough, it may suddenly just present itself.

Make sure, though, as you noodle and doodle, that you don't fall into the lexical gap.

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