Unkempt

Is your hair on purpose?

Dear Word Detective:  I heard a coworker talking about her husband, and she used the word “unkept.”  I told her I thought the term she meant was “unkempt,” but she didn’t believe it was even a word.  I think we have gotten lazy and changed it to “unkept.”  When I proved it was an actual word, everyone, including me, started wondering where such a word came from. — Todd.

Well, there you go.  It’s the fault of “unkempt” itself for being such a freaking weird word. No wonder people decided to fix it and make it “unkept” (although I would decline being included in the “we” who did it).  I’m sure “unkept” will be a much happier word (as long as it stays away from spell-checkers for the next few years, of course).

I haven’t run into the substitution of “unkept” for “unkempt” yet myself, but it sounds like a perfect example of an “eggcorn,” the replacement of an unfamiliar word or phrase with one that sounds similar but makes a bit more “sense.”  The replacement of “for all intents and purposes” with “for all intensive purposes” and the substitution of “coming down the pipe” for “coming down the pike” are both classic eggcorns.  More can be found, along with an explanation of the term “eggcorn” itself, at the Eggcorn Database at www.eggcorns.lascribe.net.

“Unkempt” means, of course, “disheveled, untidy, neglected,” and is used in reference to both personal appearance (“Tall, uncouth, unkempt fellows … seated on a bench smoking,” 1877) and general tidiness (“DeSoto County Supervisors are still grappling with what to do about overgrown subdivisions and unkempt lots,” DeSoto Times-Tribune, Jan. 2010).

When “unkempt” first appeared in English in the late 16th century, it meant literally “uncombed,” and was formed on the Old English verb “kemb,” meaning “to comb the hair” (also the root of our modern “comb”).  The more common form of the word since the 14th century had actually been “unkembed,” but “unkempt” gained a foothold because many people were familiar with its earlier Flemish form “ongekempt.”  Oddly enough, however, “unkempt” faded from use in the 17th century, but regained its popularity in the 1800s.

“Uncombed” being a good description of many things besides hair, “unkempt” immediately came into figurative use, applied to anything messy and “not in proper order.”  The first recorded use of the word, in fact, from 1579, refers to the “rugged and unkempt” use of language.  The 19th century saw the application of “unkempt” to anything, from a farm to a poem, not considered “up to snuff.”

There is, incidentally, a positive form of “unkempt,” which is simply “kempt,” meaning “in proper condition or order” (“A spacious expanse of greensward, smooth and kempt as the ancient turf of an Oxford college,” 1954).

There’s no way to prevent the English language from changing, and the slide from “unkempt” to “unkept,” if it proceeds, may simplify life for some people.  But “uncombed” seems such a poetic and perfect description of so much of life that I truly hope we can preserve  “unkempt.”

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