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It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella . . . when I saw her. . . . She was a descript person. . . . Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way.

I have difficulty understanding this passage, especially the bolded words. I didn't find those words in my dictionary. Can someone help explain it?

The passage is excerpted from

“How I Met My Wife” by Jack Winter from The New Yorker, July 25, 1994.

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    I don't believe this is a dictionary reference question; most dictionaries lack some, most, or even all of these words (for good reason: they are not really part of English per se). Mar 14, 2018 at 9:54

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This passage is a really a joke. It is deliberately using a linguistic process called back-formation to create a new word from an existing one by stripping away an apparent negative prefix.

Consider the first of your bolded words: chalant. There is a standard English word, nonchalant, that is defined as "having an air of easy unconcern or indifference." However, native speakers know that non- is a common prefix of negation, so it's easy to imagine that there might exist a word, chalant, that means the opposite of nonchalant (that is, "having air of extreme concern"), even though no such word actually exists in English. (In French, there are the verbs chaloir and nonchaloir, which have opposite meanings, but only nonchaloir was adapted into an English word.)

This is true for all of your bolded words: they are English words that had what looks like a negative prefix stripped away from them, which English-speakers would understand as meaning the opposite of the original word through the logic of back-formation. However, in all cases, the "new" word either doesn't exist in English, or is extremely uncommon. Note that The New Yorker is written for a fairly educated audience, who would presumably understand and appreciate a linguistic joke like this.

Here are all of those original real words, in the same order as in the passage you quote:

nonchalant, disgruntled, disconsolate, nondescript, unkempt, disheveled, ungainly

All of them look like they have one of the negative prefixes non-, dis-, or un-.

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  • You skipped wieldy, which was not bolded but is another of these words. Mar 14, 2018 at 17:06
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    I am plussed by your assistance. Mar 14, 2018 at 17:50
  • Not all of these are backformations, some of them actually did exist in English at one point. These are known as "lost positives". Nov 27, 2023 at 11:27

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