Odd-Sock Words

Odd Sock Syndrome. We all know about this phenomenon. Two matching socks are worn. Two matching socks are removed. Two matching socks go into the laundry hamper. Two matching socks embark on the laundry process that should see them both washed, dried, folded, and back in the drawer, together. Sole mates, as it were.

But every now and then, only one sock makes it through. The other one is never seen again.

Nobody knows what happens to these odd socks. They simply vanish, possibly into some sort of odd-sock alternative universe. We don’t understand this; we can’t explain it. We simply accept it as a fact of modern life.

What most of us don’t realize is that a similar thing happens with words. Modern English is sprinkled with words that ought to have mates but don’t. Here are just a few of these odd-sock words:

Ruthless. It means cruel, unfeeling, without compassion. Think Cruella De Vil from 101 Dalmatians, or maybe Star Trek’s Borg. Ruthless is a reasonably common word. But its onetime companion, ruth, meaning kind and compassionate, has long since disappeared. (Maybe we don’t want to think too hard about what that may say about humanity.)

Uncouth. It means awkward, ill-mannered, or unsophisticated. Even though it certainly doesn’t apply to any of us personally, we can all think of a couple of people it fits. But we don’t use its obvious opposite. We don’t say, “Her new boyfriend is so much more couth than the last guy she brought home.”

Reckless. We all know the meaning of this one. But its wiser and sorely needed opposite, reck, just isn’t around any more. Considering the consequences of reckless behavior (Loosely defined as “Hold my beer and watch this!”), one might think the wrong word became the odd sock here.

Unkempt. It means pretty much what it sounds like: untidy or disorderly. Like the typical kids’ bedroom, maybe. Or my desk. I really wish I could keep my desk more kempt, but by now I’ve accepted the reality that it’s just not going to happen.

Disheveled. This means untidy, too, but more in the sense of messed up or wrinkled. The way your hair looks when you first get up in the morning? That’s disheveled. Sorry, though. You can wash it, blow-dry it, mousse it, and style it to perfection, and nobody is ever going to say, “Oh, your hair is so heveled today.” This poor odd sock never had a mate to begin with.

Just to save the nerds among you the trouble of looking it up, some of the lost mates to these odd-sock words are still in the dictionary. I found ruth, reck, couth, and kempt. The first two are centuries old and have long since faded away. The last two are more recent back-formations from uncouth and unkempt. They were probably launched by a few optimistic word nerds trying to bring a little balance into the universe, but they never caught on.

But there’s no need to feel discombobulated about all this. Just imagine a place, somewhere in another dimension, where all the lost socks and all the lost odd-sock words live happily together. They are beings of great couth, filled with reck and ruth, living in surroundings that are always kempt and heveled.

When I think of it this way, I feel much more calm and serene. It gives me a reassuring sense of combobulation.

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