A kempt back-formation

The word unkempt (untidy, dishevelled, slovenly, uncombed) is common enough, but kempt (tidy, neatly kept, combed) is much less so. I’m not sure why: it is itself a neat word, expressive and economical. Here’s an example from Denis Johnson’s great war novel Tree of Smoke:

At this point Jimmy Storm took notice of a patron sitting down to another table, a rather tall young Asian woman, prepossessing, strikingly kempt, sheathed in a glamour of silk . . .

And one from Sara Baume’s engrossing Spill Simmer Falter Wither:

His hands were so humanlike, his nails exquisitely kempt, much more so than my own.

Most sources say kempt is a back-formation from unkempt, which has been around for centuries. In Middle English unkempt took the form unkemd – from un– + kembed (or kempt), past participle of kemb “to comb”. Comb gradually replaced kemb except in isolated dialectal use.

Scythian combWe find kemb in Chaucer: “His longe hair was kembed behind his back.” In Old English it was cemban; the American Heritage Dictionary says this is derived from the Germanic form *kambaz, originating in the Indo-European root gembh– “tooth, nail”.

Jack Winter’s comical essay How I Met My Wife is full of unusual and improbable words created by removing negative prefixes, and sure enough he makes use of kempt: “Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way.” Various poems exploit the same terrain.

But kempt, as we’ve seen, can also be used with a straight face; contemporary examples may be browsed at Wordnik, many of them in the compound adjective well-kempt:

On the whole, she was not much cleaner or any better kempt than the ragamuffin boy. (Margaret Peterson Haddix, Uprising)

With his thick gray hair, salt-and-pepper beard, and aviator glasses, he looked like a well-kempt Jerry Garcia. (Paul Elie, ‘The Velvet Reformation’)

[Image shows a Scythian comb, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. I think its handle is a metaphor for knotty hair.]

18 Responses to A kempt back-formation

  1. Reminds me of ‘nocent’, in terms of ‘innocent,’ a friend in my college theater group made much ado of that. Theater is such a great crucible of word play (‘tray bong, tray, tray, tray bong’ – the director actually..! oh.. never mind..). Lovely Winter poem!

  2. Ah, that’s interesting. I’d always imagined unkempt was like saying something was badly kept.

    Incidentally, I was helping with some tree-cutting at the weekend. The forester wielding the chainsaw pointed out the leftover spiky bit on a stump someone else had cut. He called it a ‘sloven’ and reckoned that was the derivation of ‘slovenly’ – a sign of a sloppy, half-finished job!

  3. Stan says:

    Claire: I like nocent, though I’m unsure how best to pronounce it. (“Winter poem” is confusing me a bit, unless it’s a seasonal reference, since it was an essay by Winter that I linked to. But no matter.)

    Katie: Unkempt is pretty close to “badly kept”; it’s a nice accidental correspondence. Thanks for the wood-chopping anecdote! The forester was right, in a way: slovenly does come from sloven + -ly. Sloven is an old word (15C, says the OED) normally said of a person who is untidy, lazy, uncouth, dirty, etc. But its use in forestry to refer to a splintered stump didn’t appear until the 20C.

    • Oh yes, I meant essay in this case. Feels more like a poem to me, since it’s not serious and studious, and includes word play, and is about love. But to each their own!

  4. limr says:

    How about someone who is ‘couth’?
    My favorite back formation at the moment is “grump” as a verb, from the adjective “grumpy”. I can’t be sure that this usage extends past…well, me, but at least that means I know it’s a back-formation instead of just using the noun ‘grump’ as a verb. I can even remember the specific conversation with my boyfriend. “Why are you grumpy?” I asked. “I’m not” he said. “Well, you sure do grump a lot, so doesn’t that make you grumpy?” He told me I couldn’t use ‘grump’ as a verb and I told him it’s okay, I’m a professional ;)

  5. marc leavitt says:

    One of my favorites is “gruntle” (to please or placate). I was well-gruntled to read this post.

  6. Stan says:

    Leonore: Grump is a good one – and as a verb it dates to the 19C, says the OED (tell your boyfriend!). Strictly speaking I think it’s zero derivation from the noun rather than back-formation, because back-formations are always shorter than their source words. Couth is similar to kempt: back-formed from the un- word, and worth a post in its own right.

    Marc: Gruntle gruntles me too. It suggests happy pig noises, and when I looked it up I found this to be among its primary meanings (OED: “Chiefly of a pig: utter a little or subdued grunt”). It can also mean “grumble, complain”, funnily enough. We may as well add grumple to the mix.

  7. wisewebwoman says:

    The gods are working against me today, Stan, this must be my fifth attempt to leave a comment, too many interruptions of the disgruntling kind.

    One of the frequent words I use in Scrabble is “haviour”.I love these lopped off words.


  8. Stan says:

    Fern: Agreed! I expect they have their own Facebook fan page by now.

    WWW: Haviour is all new to me, and I do like your description “lopped off words”. Sorry to hear you had trouble commenting – hopefully next time it will be a more traught and capacitated experience.

  9. […] Carey told us about the dramatic grammatic evolution of LOL and the origin of the word kempt. At Macmillan Dictionary Blog, Michael Rundell gave us the story behind dapper and the difference […]

  10. John Cowan says:

    “John! Behave!”

    “I am being haive.”

  11. Stan says:

    “John! Be nice!”

    “I’ve beniced long enough.”

  12. Shaun Downey says:

    Thee are a lot of words like that isn’t there?

  13. patronanejo says:

    I had always assumed that kempt was closely related to kampf–so much so that I had come to think of it as typically Germanic to regard the unkempt as having given up the struggle against entropy!

    Needless to say, this rather blows my mind–mainly that I could base so much on such flimsy evidence (this must be how Fox News viewers felt last November). I will almost certainly be uncovering sequllae that I shall have to reconcile to this updated Weltanschauung.

    • Stan says:

      Thanks for your visit, patronanejo. I think it’s normal for people to base a lot on little evidence, but I’m glad my post has on this occasions steered you in the right etymological direction.

  14. patronanejo says:

    …aaargh!… sequelae, not sequllae

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