July 23, 2013

Case File #013.07.23: UNKEMPT

During the Middle English era, kemben was the common word for “to comb.” The verb's past participle was kempt, and as you've probably already surmised, the derivative unkempt meant “not combed.” As the fourteenth century wound to a close, however, the spelling of kemben evolved into the now familiar comb, and though the form of unkempt somehow came out unscathed, the adjective's meaning shifted to the more general (and still current) “untidy or disheveled.” Now, if you're assuming that this was also when kempt came to mean “neat or orderly,” you couldn't be more wrong. You see, when kemben became comb, the verb's past participle also changed to combed and the older kempt fell out of use altogether. So, then, just where did the contemporary adjective kempt come from, you ask? Well, it turns out that it originated in the 1920s as a back-formation from unkempt, most likely first popping up when somebody in need of a tidy synonym assumed the un- in unkempt was a mere facultative prefix.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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