De and Dis

Each of these is termed by the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY "a living prefix with privative force". "Living" is the right word; they have been living riotously of late. Anyone, it seems, can make a new verb by prefixing de to an existing one. Some years ago Sir Alan Herbert made a collection of some remarkable recent creations of this sort, and included them in his index expurgatorius of "septic verbs". Among them were debureaucratise, decontaminate, dedirt, dehumidify, deinsectize, deratizate, derestrict, dewater, dezincify. Derequisition was not there; it must have been a later creation.

Some of these, it is to be hoped, may prove to be freaks of an occasion and will be seen no more. But there is a class which has come to stay, whether we like it or not. This comprises decontaminate, derestrict, and derequisition. Their origin is the same: they all denote the undoing of something the doing of which called for—or at any rate was given—a special term. If to affect with gas is to contaminate, to enforce a speed limit is to restrict, and to commandeer a house is to requisition then the cancellation of those things will inevitably be decontaminate, derestrict, and derequisition, whether we like it or not, and it is no use saying that they ought to be cleanse, exempt and release, or any other words that are not directly linked with their opposites.

As to dis, the word that moved Sir Alan Herbert most, at the time when he was writing, was disequilibrium. Today the favourites are disincentive and disinflation. Incentive has become almost a term of art in political economy, and inflation has long been one. Both are much on our lips just now. They have their established opposites, says the purist, deterrent and deflation. But do these really mean quite the same as disincentive and disinflation? If the answer is—as it seems to be—that we need special words for that particular from of deterrent that discourages men from working hard, and for that process of checking inflation which is something less than deflation, we may as well give in. But what is alarming is that those who go in for the invention of opposites by means of "living prefixes with privative force" do not know when to stop. It becomes a disease. Disincentive replaces deterrent; then undisincentive ousts incentive, and then disincentive itself has to yield to non-undisincentive. No wonder Mr. G. V. Carey is moved to write to The Times:

I have long been waiting for somebody to dispel my growing bewilderment at the modern expression of affirmative and negative (or should I say "disaffirmative"?) in English. I had always imagined that the opposite of "harmony" was "discord", not "disharmony"; of "incentive", "deterrent"; and so on. But at the present rate of distortion of our language it looks as though we shall soon be talking about "black and disblack", "good and disgood".

In the "newspeak" which George Orwell pictured as the language of 1984 very bad has become doubleplusungood.

See also NEW VERBS, NON and UN.
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