We witnessed yet another horrific shooting this week. This time, a “disgruntled former employee,” as many news outlets have been describing him, gunned down two journalists during a live broadcast in Virginia.
Disgruntled. To me, a disgruntled employee is a fast-food worker who spits into a burger after one too many lunch rushes – not a mass shooter. We reach for motivations and explanations, for words, to make sense of these terrible tragedies. In the US, as has become our woeful norm, a disgruntled person seems to reach for a gun.
Here, let’s reach for the origins of disgruntled.
Today, we use disgruntled as an adjective, but the word originates from its root verb, disgruntle. The Oxford English Dictionary dates this disgruntle back to 1682 and defines it as “to put into sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humor.” By the middle of 19th century, the word was settling into its contemporary usage, the participial adjective disgruntled.
Etymologically, there are two main parts to disgruntle. First, dis– is a Latin prefix (ultimately an adaptation of the Greek for “two”). Here, it means “exceedingly.” Many have joked that we never describe anyone as gruntled, though the morphologically keen have playfully back-formed it so. This is because this dis- serves to intensify, not negate.
Second, gruntle is a so-called frequentative form of grunt. In English, the suffix -le was once a productive way to show repeated action. So, we have crack and crackle or sniff and sniffle. Jostle shows frequent jousting, swaddle swathing, illustrating some further sounds changes that occur with frequentative verbs. Gruntle, then, is ongoing grunting.
Gruntle was once an active verb: The OED cites it around 1400 and characterizing the little and low grunting of swine. By the end of the 1500s, gruntle more generally signified “to grumble,” which verb appears to have elbowed out gruntle.
So, we’re left with grunt. At root, a grunt is a grunt. It’s probably imitative in origin; the word sounds like what it is. Documented in the 700s and first said of a hog, Old English had grunnettan, itself a frequentative of grunian, “to grunt.” Other Indo-European Languages show parallel words for grunt, like Latin’s grunnīre.
Hogs aren’t alone in their grunting. Probable cognates to grunt, the grunion and gurnard, not to mention the plain old grunt, are all fish noted for their grumbling when taken out of the water. Grunt is also likely related to the word grudge, which originally meant “to murmur” or “grumble” complaints.
If only we expressed our disgruntlement, our feelings of being a just grunt, with just that: grunts, not guns. And until we reach any meaningful action on gun violence and mental healthcare, we all shouldn’t grumble about our state of affairs: We should scream.