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Don’t dis this prefix

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© COMSTOCK IMAGESThe prefix dis- is commonly added to words to give them an opposite or contrasting sense. It entered English from Latin dis-, or in some cases from Old French des-. On his affixes website Michael Quinion says the prefix ‘had various linked senses in Latin, such as reversal, moving apart, removal or separation’, or sometimes ‘simple negation’.

We see the same range in English today: direct opposition in words like disrespect, disbelief, and disloyal – notice it can attach equally well to verbs, nouns, and adjectives – and removal or separation in words like dislocate and displace. Certain words, like disinter and disconnect, convey both concepts. The prefix is less noticeable in some words, such as disease and discover, but the sense of antithesis remains.

Dis- can shed light on a word’s history or etymology. You probably know the verb enthral in the sense captivate: to ‘make you so interested in or excited by something that you give it all your attention’. Adding the dis- prefix produces the rare word disenthral, a recent addition to our Open Dictionary. Disenthral means release – not from captivation but from captivity; it means ‘set free, liberate’. This is because enthral originally meant ‘hold in thrall’ quite literally – to enslave or hold captive – and disenthral contains and negates that earlier sense.

As a standalone verb, dis (also diss) broke away from its parent word disrespect in AAVE, aka Black English, several decades ago. It emerged in rap and hip hop culture, featuring in songs like ‘Rock Box’ (1984) by Run DMC (‘We’ll diss a sucker MC’) and ‘I’ll Take Your Man’ (1986) by Salt-n-Pepa (‘You tried to dis me when I was on the mic’). Over time it was adopted by other demographic groups, and nowadays it’s used matter-of-factly in many varieties of English.

The OED’s first citation for the new verb dis(s) is from a 1980 rap song by Spoonie Gee (‘Ya wanna be dissed and then ya wanna be a crook’), followed by the 1989 Spike Lee film Do the Right Thing (‘He’s dissing you’). The next few are from publications like the Boston Globe, Just Seventeen, and the UK Independent. The last of these – ‘seeing his life’s work in pesticide research being dissed by the organic lobby’ – shows how far its usage had spread by the turn of the century.

Dis(s) remains informal, though, and is labelled as such in Macmillan’s entry. (You can discover more about our formality labels here.) Dis-, by contrast, is a hugely productive prefix that disregards any notions of register. Their dissimilarity is undisprovable.

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Stan Carey

4 Comments

  • Quote: “Disenthral means release – not from captivation but from captivity; it means ‘set free, liberate’. This is because enthral originally meant ‘hold in thrall’ quite literally – to enslave or hold captive – and disenthral contains and negates that earlier sense.”

    Correct me if I’m wrong but I’m interpreting ‘disenthral’ to mean release from the captivity of captivation –
    ie, I may become captivated by an attractive but not really very good person, and, knowing that this person isn’t very nice, wishing I wasn’t, and wanting to be ‘disenthralled’ – to be set free from this captivation.

  • Thanks for the input, Catherine. It appears disenthral can have either sense; the OED defines it as: “to set free from enthralment or bondage; to liberate from thraldom”, and its citations refer to being disenthralled from tyranny and passions, among other things. Thraldom, in turn, it defines as “the state or condition of being a thrall; bondage, servitude; captivity”, with both literal and figurative subsenses.

  • Hi Stan and Catherine. This is a very rare word indeed in modern usage: the huge corpus I use has only 95 citations, including quite a bit of spam. Leaving those and archaic examples aside, we find lines for the meanings of ‘set free from captivity’ and ‘disenchant’. Here are a few examples:
    By the end of the book, however, I was completely disenthralled.
    It’s awfully easy to become disenthralled by current events.
    As 1862 drew to a close, Vicksburg had been disenthralled.
    Count Egmont, who was not yet disenthralled from the spell of the court…
    As GOP voters grow disenthralled with Texas Gov Rick Perry…
    The challenge will be twofold: disenthralling ourselves of old paradigms and also …
    The fourth and fifth examples are perhaps the closest to the meaning you refer to, Catherine.

  • Thanks for the interesting examples, Liz. There aren’t very many citations in COHA either, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone use the word in speech.

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