Posted by: episystechpubs | July 25, 2016

Editor’s Corner: Uncouth/Couth

Reader Robert Trescott asked about words that require prefixes, like the word uncouth. Based on the un- prefix, it seems like couth should also be a word. But, Robert writes, "I’ve never seen an example like, ‘Miss Manners praised the reader for being so couth.’"

Uncouth is an "unpaired word": a word that, "according to the usual rules of the language, would appear to have a related word but does not" (thanks, Wikipedia).

If Miss Manners were to break decorum and call a reader uncouth, she would mean something like the following (from Merriam-Webster):

uncouth: awkward and uncultivated in appearance, manner, or behavior; rude

But uncouth also has an earlier (now archaic) definition:

uncouth: not known or not familiar to one; seldom experienced; uncommon, rare

Uncouth is a Middle English word. It comes from the prefix un- and the Old English word cth, meaning "familiar, known." Cth survives as the Scottish word couthie, meaning "pleasant, kindly, friendly."

Over the past 900 years, uncouth changed meaning from "not known or not familiar" to "strange or clumsy in shape or appearance," and then to "awkward and uncultivated." (The idea that unfamiliar things are peculiar or unrefined also underlies the various meanings of the word strange.)

Couth did not undergo such an evolution, but in 1896, it re-entered modern English (as a back-formation from uncouth):

couth: sophisticated, polished

Although couth is not very common these days, Miss Manners could use it to praise a reader (if only her readers were as sophisticated and polished as ours).

Thank you, Robert, for your question.

Ben Ritter | Technical Editor | Symitar
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619-682-3391 | or ext. 763391 | www.Symitar.com

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Responses

  1. […] that would appear to have related words but do not. I previously wrote about the unpaired words uncouth, feckless, hapless, reckless, and ruthless. Today, let’s look at three more: bashful, […]


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