Uncouth, Unkempt, and Unwieldy

By Maeve Maddox

Most negative English adjectives that begin with un- have a familiar antonym. For example:

unhappy / happy
unlucky / lucky
unsuspecting / suspecting
ungenerous / generous

This post is about three adjectives whose positive forms are rarely used in modern English.

uncouth: Awkward and uncultured.

Examples of current usage of uncouth:

The Malawi government has branded pop star Madonna an “uncouth” bully who exaggerates her charitable work in the country.

After considering the likes of ‘refined’ English actors such as Cary Grant and David Niven, the producers cast Sean Connery as Bond in the film. Fleming was appalled at the selection of the uncouth, 31-year-old Scottish actor, considering him to be the antithesis of his character. 

The adjective couth (“known, familiar”) was very common in Old English. One spoke of “couth lands” and “couth customs” meaning “known lands” and “familiar customs.” The word couth came to mean cultured, genteel. Nowadays, when speakers use the word couth, it is with the latter meaning, but with self-consciously humorous intent.

The second of these two examples of current usage of couth transforms the adjective into a noun:

Well, orcs aren’t human, and I would suppose that they aren’t as couth as humans are.

I’m reminded that junior high boys are not known for their couth.

unkempt: uncombed (of hair, wool, etc.); neglected, not cared for, untrimmed.

Here are examples of modern usage of unkempt:

How can they let [NCIS character Deek] on camera with that unkempt mop?

The role as a loudmouth unkempt woman easily was her finest personal performance to date.

Criminals are attracted to neighborhoods that appear dirty or unkempt.

In Old English, kempt was a past form of cemban, “to comb.” In modern English, kempt is occasionally used humorously to mean combed or neat, as in the following examples:

I’ve had more kempt looking pros change the oil in my Maserati.

[The apartment] is occasionally a little messy but not unkempt. Semi-kempt?

His plaid shirt was half-untucked, and his usually kempt comb-over was flying wildly into the air.

unwieldy: Difficult to control, guide, move, manipulate, etc., by virtue of size, shape, or weight.

In modern usage, the adjective unwieldy is applied to things, like tools or weapons, but originally, it referred to people. A “wieldy person” was nimble and had the agility to handle a weapon with skill.

Although wieldy doesn’t make much of a showing in COCA or the Ngram Viewer, it is used in serious contexts. Wieldy is a brand name for a line of camera accessories, and the word is at home in discussions of tools and software:

Is the handle attached separately or is the whole slicer and handle cast together as one piece? It’s all one piece, and extremely wieldy.

The great thing about the SKS was it could drop people at distance but you could also get up close and do well, partly because of the high fire-rate but also because it feels extremely wieldy. 

Yes, I know – it’s hard to imagine anything bigger than 10 inches to be considered wieldy enough for practical use.

Of the three supposed antonyms of uncouth, unkempt, and unwieldy, couth continues to be a word that provokes amusement, wieldy sounds like a “real” word, and—judging by this example I found in a blog about wedding planning, kempt may be slipping back into serious usage:

You should make sure that your facial hair is neat and kempt.

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3 Responses to “Uncouth, Unkempt, and Unwieldy”

  • David Knuttunen

    It seems to me that I’ve most often seen “kempt” in a positive form in modern usage combined with “well” as “well-kempt.”

  • venqax

    @David Knuttunen: Good point.

  • AnWulf

    Couth can also hav the meaning of “polite’:

    If you don’t approve of how I’ve done something —— the website, for example —— there is a couth and appropriate recourse which will allow you to express your opinion. http://greygirlbeast.livejournal.com/2009/07/15/

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