Countless unnatural things happen in the history of language. Coincidences, as bizarre as in Dickens’s novels, encounter us at every step. For example, it turns out that Modern Engl. un- is a symbiosis of two prefixes. One has broad Indo-European connections and is the same in English and Latin. It occurs in adjectives, adverbs, and participles, such as unkind, unkindly, undaunted, and can be appended with equal frequency to Germanic words (unwise, unfair, unfit, unheard-of) and to words of Romance origin (unable, unpromising, undaunted, unimaginable). But un- in verbs, such as undo, unplug, and hundreds of others, is its homonym, related to Old Engl. un- and its variant and-, whose semiobliterated trace can be discerned in answer. (The Old English for answer, noun, was andswaru: it consisted of and-, a cognate of anti-, and the base recognizable in swear. “Answer” was originally a solemn affirmation in rebutting a charge.). The ancient difference of meaning between negation (as in uneven, unwise) and reversal or deprivation (as in undo, unhorse) is small, and no modern speaker is aware of it, especially because in participles either of the two un’s can turn up: compare undone (Germanic) and unimpressed (Romance). We can also negate a quality by adding -less to a word (witless, shameless). The suffix -less is the opposite of full, spelled -ful in adjectives, but here, too, language fools us. Witless exists, whereas witful does not. By contrast, wistful does not correlate with wistless. Adjectives like unshameful look silly; yet Milton was fond of them, and mindless is not a synonym of unmindful.
The case of two un’s is similar to that of two miss’s. Miss has been punsters’ prey forever. (A successful lover kisses his “missis,” while an unsuccessful one misses his kisses. Professor: “Sir, you have missed my class today.” Student: “Not at all, Sir, not at all,” and so on.) Miss, the verb, is, not unexpectedly, related to the prefix mis-, which, like un-, also has two sources. The first, a cognate of the verb miss, is Germanic. Its earliest meaning seems to have been “different, various”; “different” developed into “wrong.” To give one example, misdeed “wrongdoing” is an ancient word, with counterparts in other Old Germanic languages. Mis- points to everything that goes amiss. The other miss- is from French, in which it is a reflex (continuation) of mes-, as in mesalliance, that is, misalliance. Once we realize that the Latin etymon of mes- is minus, the development of meaning becomes obvious. In Spanish, some words still begin with menos-, such as, for instance, menoscabar “impair; lessen” and menosprecio “scorn, contempt.” It follows that from a historical point of view mishap and misdemeanor do not begin with the same prefix, but in our linguistic intuition they are indistinguishable.
In most cases, mis- is easy to separate from the root it precedes (mis-apprehend, mis-rule, mis-carry). But every now and then, an English loanword from French does not occur without mis-: although miscreant is understandable thanks to an association with create, a good fellow called creant has not been found. Miscreants make one think of misprision, without “prision,” an act worth of a creant, having been recorded. More interesting are a few words whose transparent structure sheds almost no light on the meaning. It takes an effort to decompose mistake into mis- and -take, not because the morphological seam is hard to discover but because we do not think of taking anything when we say mistake. However, such is, of course, the origin of that word. It came to English from Scandinavian in the 13th century. The sense of mistake was “take in error.” Old French mesprendre may have influenced it. More puzzling is misgiving, which prompts the question: “What gives?” The verb misgive, which probably no one uses today, goes back to the Middle Engl. meaning of give “suggest” (hence misgivings “doubts, forebodings”). An extreme case is mischief. Old French chief meant not only “head” but also “goal, end” (compare Engl. bring to a head). A related verb is achieve, from Old French achever, which can be glossed as “come to an end.” Therefore, mischief refers to reaching a wrong goal and performing something reprehensible. It was first recorded in the 13th century, and the development of senses, as it is represented in the Oxford English Dictionary, shows that the way was toward minimizing harm: “misfortune, distress,” “harm,” “cause of harm,” “conduct causing petty troubles,” and finally, “playful maliciousness.” The last gloss is especially memorable.
Not every word beginning with mis- and having unpleasant overtones is related to the prefix -mis of whichever origin. Misanthrope and misogynist, both ultimately from Greek, contain the root misos “hatred,” so that a misanthrope is not an un-man. Neither is a miser (Latin miserari “be pitiful”; the oldest meaning of miser was “wretch”). In light of what has been said above, the etymology of such words is easy to misunderstand.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”