Don't gruntle if you are gruntled

I was talking about Halloween costumes last month with a reporter friend who had recently left a job where she wasn't very happy for one that has been a lot better. She asked for suggestions, so I said: "How about a disgruntled journalist?" "But that's my everyday costume!" she said.

"But aren't you gruntled now?" I said.

I then looked up gruntled, suspecting  that disgruntled was one of those words that existed independent of the root word. I was partially right, as the OED explains that gruntled is a "back-formation from disgruntled" that means "pleased, satisfied, contented." It's not a particularly recent back-formation though, as the OED's first quotation with gruntled is from 1938.

But digging into the OED, I found that disgruntle goes back much farther, with a quotation from 1682. It's a combination of dis- and gruntle.

But wait, isn't gruntled a back-formation? Not when you go back this far, where the meaning of gruntle is "to grumble, murmur, complain"; the first quotation in that sense goes to 1589.  And the dis- prefix here isn't used in the most common sense of "In twain, in different directions, apart, asunder, hence abroad, away" as in disconnect or dismiss. The OED's fifth definition for dis- is how it is used in disgruntle:

  • "With verbs having already a sense of division, solution, separation, or undoing, the addition of dis- was naturally intensive, ‘away, out and out, utterly, exceedingly’, as in disperere to perish utterly, dispudire to be utterly ashamed, distædere to be utterly wearied or disgusted; hence it became an intensive in some other verbs, as dilaudere to praise exceedingly, discupere to desire vehemently, dissuaviri to kiss ardently. In the same way, English has several verbs in which dis- adds intensity to words having already a sense of undoing, as in disalter, disaltern, disannul."

And disgruntle, which the OED defines as: "To put into sulky dissatisfaction or ill-humour; to chagrin, disgust."

So there is the modern gruntled, which means content, and the old gruntle, which means to grumble. English follows weird paths.

The original gruntle comes from the word grunt, unsurprisingly. Grunt's OED etymology: from the "Old English grunnettan (= Old High German, modern German grunzen), frequently of grunian (compare to Middle High German grunnen), meaning to grunt, an echoic formation parallel with Latin grunnire.