unkempt (1). Today: Sense and Use. “Unkempt” is a word with a “lost positive,” one of those interesting negatives without a corresponding positive word (cf. “discombobulate,” “disgruntled,” “nondescript”). That is, the word *”kempt” is obsolete while “unkempt” thrives. (Perhaps this says something about the state of the world.) “Unkempt” means “uncombed, disheveled” (another word with a lost positive), although the earliest uses in the Oxford English Dictionary, from the 16th century, were figurative: “unkempt rhymes” and “unkempt words.” By the 18th century, most uses were literal: “unkempt hair,” “unkempt locks,” “unkempt fellows,” “unkempt cotton.” By the 19th century, the word took on broader senses of untidiness and applied to other things, such as clothes and farms. *Invariably inferior form. Next: And “unkept.” For information about the Language-Change Index click here. ——————– Quotation of the Day: “Never use a technical term when a simple nontechnical word or phrase will equally well express your meaning.” W.T. Stace, “The Snobbishness of the Learned,” in Atlantic Essays 94, 100 (Samuel N. Bogorad & Cary B. Graham eds., 1958).
Scroll to Top