Prefixes that make opposites, or not

English has many prefixes that make a word into a negative or opposite: Add “non-” to “profit,” for example, and you have something that doesn’t aim to reap financial rewards for personal gain. Add “dis-” to “invite,” and you’re not going to that party any more.

Usually, you can remove the prefix and see what the “positive” is. But some words seem to have crept into modern English with only their negative selves; they left their positive roots behind, or never had them.

Take “discombobulate.” It means “upset,” “disorient,” “confuse,” all negative things. But there is no positive word “combobulate.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary says “discombobulate,” first used in 1916, may be “an alteration of discompose,” which does have an opposite, “compose.”

Some of these words have similar not-quite-opposites. We “dissuade” someone of something, but we don’t “suade,” we “persuade.” “Per-” as a prefix comes from Latin “to complete,” and “suadere” is Latin for “to advise” or “to urge.” Somewhere, instead of removing a prefix, a different one was added.

Many words with the “in-” prefix have no modern counterparts. An incompetent person is “inept,” but dictionaries don’t include the word “ept.” They do have “apt,” though it means “likely,” and so its opposite, “inapt,” means “unlikely” rather than “unable.” “Inept” first arose around 1542, M-W says, probably as a variation of “inapt.” Similarly, we have “inane” but not “ane.” “Insipid” does have “sipid,” though M-W says that’s a backformation, meaning “insipid” was here first.

The opposite of “sense” is “nonsense.” But the opposite of “nonplus” is not “plus.” From the Latin “non plus,” or “no more,” “nonplussed” means “baffled,” though, as we’ve said before, many people think it means “not bothered.” That would be “unbothered.”

A “misnomer” is a name wrongly applied; there is no “nomer” for a correct name, but “nomer” is a variant of the Latin “nomen,” or “name.” And a “misdoubt” is not the opposite of “doubt”; it also means “doubt.” It’s what Garner’s Modern American Usage calls an archaic and “needless variant” of “doubt.” (It was good enough for Milton, who used it in his Areopagitica, but that was in 1644…)

In that sense, “misdoubt” is similar to “irregardless,” a word that’s already a negative and doesn’t need a prefix to make it so. We said in 2008 that “irregardless” was useless and uncouth, but that hasn’t stopped people from using it and dictionaries from including it. Fortunately, most still consider “irregardless” to be “nonstandard English.”

That means the opposite of “standard,” no misdoubt about it.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.