In the course of my editing this afternoon I hit the word, or rather non-word, incalcitrant. I thought perhaps it was some arcane medical term, but a little googling convinced me it was simply an error for recalcitrant; furthermore, there was an entire webpage about it (created by Jeffrey K. Parrott, Ph.D. candidate in linguistics, member of Punks in Science and, if that’s actually his picture, a fellow hat-wearer [Update Feb. 2014: all links are now dead; Punks in Science is here but hasn't been updated since 2009]):

Summarizing, naïve Modern English speakers encounter the opaque recalcitrant, with the meaning ‘stubborn, etc.’ They semantically reanalyze -calcitrant as meaning something like ‘cooperative, etc.’ and replace the semantically unrelated prefix re- with the semantically relevant negating prefix in-. This yields the fully transparent new word incalcitrant, meaning ‘stubborn, etc.,’ literally ‘not cooperative, etc.’ The reanalyzed derivation of incalcitrant seems clear enough, and it should dispel any notion that English speakers are stupid or ignorant. The successful reanalysis of recalcitrant requires sophisticated (unconscious!) knowledge of morpho-lexical semantics, morphological constituency, morphotactics, and morphophonology (this latter because English speakers never mistakenly use the wrong variant of in-, e.g. *ilcalcitrant, *ircalcitrant, *imcalcitrant).
One question remains: why is the less productive prefix in- used instead of the fully productive prefix un-? That is, why don’t we ever see *uncalcitrant (a Google search on this non-word brought back one single result, compared with 193 results for incalcitrant)? The answer is simple, but has a fascinating implication. As noted above, the prefix in- attaches to Latinate vocabulary. Because -calcitrant is a Latin root, it will be negated with ­in- and not un-. But that means that naïve Modern English speakers have unconscious knowledge about the Latinate/non-Latinate distinction in their vocabulary items! They retain this knowledge in spite of the fact that the Latin meaning of ­­-calcitrant is not only lost, but changed in the reanalysis. So speakers of Modern English are much smarter than they are portrayed by prescriptivists and their ilk. The English language is in no danger of decay, whatever that would mean.

Elsewhere on the morphological-analysis front, Erin O’Connor has a post about the English reanalysis of the plural tamales as tamale + -s, creating a new singular tamale to replace Spanish tamal; she compares “those crazy Latin and Greek words like stadium/stadia and octopus/octopodes, which may have English pluralization rules.” As I said in her comment thread:

I used to have the same reaction to “tamale,” but then I relaxed and accepted that it’s the English singular, while tamal is the Spanish singular, and there’s no more point trying to get English speakers to use it than there is trying to get them to say Ciudad de México instead of Mexico City. (Also, note that even the Greeks and Romans often got the declined forms of octopus and other -pous words wrong according to Justin the Mad Latinist.)

And now for something completely different: wobsite! (Thanks to Songdog for the link to Randall Munroe’s xkcd, “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.”)


  1. I heard a salesman use the word “pant” as the singular of “pants” somewhere back around 1958:
    “OK now, this pant doesn’t wear quite as well as the other one….”
    Native English speaker, sold pants every day, small town Minnesota.

  2. Dan Hendrix says:

    So then could you say “inrecalcitrant” to mean cooperative?

  3. why is the less productive prefix in- used instead of the fully productive prefix un-?
    An alternative explanation: “incalcitrant” is modeled after “incapable”.

  4. Is that really the best explanation for using “in-” instead of “un-”? Do speakers really have unconscious knowledge about Latinate roots? That’s seems a stretch.

  5. Fingers faster than brain. Again.
    What I meant to say was that while I really like Jeffrey’s explanation, I am a little skeptical about the “unconscious knowledge about the Latinate/non-Latinate distinction”. It seems more likely to me that when (re)creating this particular word, the particular speakers did not bother to consider such general issues, but rather based their creation on a very common word very similar in shape (in + ca).

  6. I am a little skeptical about the “unconscious knowledge about the Latinate/non-Latinate distinction”.
    Yeah, me too. But it’s a fun argument!

  7. “Irrecalcitrant”, surely. I agree with Bulbul, incidentally. I would have used “incapacitated”, but it’s the same idea.

  8. Fashion industry people often seem to use “pant” as a singular. Check out the blurbs (and the very weird pants) at International Male (, for example. I wonder if they do that to mark themselves as experts or something. They must know it sounds weird to the rest of the world…?

  9. I would have used “incapacitated”
    That’s the other one I’ve been looking for!
    this pant doesn’t wear quite as well as the other one
    is remarkable for two reasons:
    a) the singular “pant”;
    b) the intransitive “wear”.
    Is it just my ignorance or is this particular use of “wear” rather odd?
    And finally, what about “trouser” and “breech”?

  10. I wonder if they do that to mark themselves as experts or something.
    Most likely.
    I wish they spent their valuable time designing and producing a decent pair of jeans (jean?) size 42 instead. Seriously, do they think every guy in the world is size 36-38?

  11. Audubon Bakewell says:

    Anent “tamales ==> tamale/tamal”
    While the singular is indeed “tamal” in Spanish, according to the Real Academia’s dictionary, the word derives from the Nahua word “tamalli”, so….in fact, the ENGLISH word more closely approximates the original!

  12. A fabric wearing well is the primary intransitive sense in both American and British dictionaries. Not at all remarkable to me.

  13. Meaning ‘stand up to use’, not ‘drape well’ or otherwise ‘flatter the wearer’, I should have emphasized. At least, that was what I took John’s salesman to be saying. Perhaps I’m wrong and that was not the intended meaning, which would be unusual.

  14. MCM,
    you mean “endure use”? That would certainly make sense. I guess the use of the adverb “well”, especially with the qualifier “quite”, must have confused me.

  15. Yes, exactly. I am picturing the small town Minnesota where the laundromats had separate machines for iron miners whose drums were pretty much ore colored. Durability would be paramount for the customer, even for church clothes. Fashion, not so much. I accept that John may tell me I have the picture all wrong.

  16. Whether as endure use or as be worn well (by someone who wears something), wear is well analysed as a passive use in this pant doesn’t wear quite as well as the other one. That’s according to my unusual way of regimenting English verb forms, I hasten to add. To say wear is intransitive in this sentence is to fail to distinguish two kinds of intransitivity. Let me shift verbs, to illustrate:
    Those two are great salespeople; they sell better than anyone else in the store.
    Those are great pants; they sell better than any others in the store.
    Unless I’ve missed some shift in grammatical theory (perfectly possible, of course), both instances of sell are conventionally analysed as intransitive here. But I say that the first is active and the second is passive – even if not marked as passive in the conventionally identified English way, as are sold is marked as passive. (That’s just my way. Forgive me. I also do a nice trick with middle voice.)
    And finally, what about “trouser” and “breech”?
    Trouser is amply attested in Australian shops. We’re waiting with bated breath for scissor and bellow, but forcep is already safely delivered. (I know, its s is not an s of plurality.)

  17. McMM is right about what the salesman meant.
    How about Coleridge’s lederhosen?:
    As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing….

  18. David Marjanovi? says:

    Is that really the best explanation for using “in-” instead of “un-”? Do speakers really have unconscious knowledge about Latinate roots? That’s seems a stretch.
    To me it seems the other way around. Recalcitrant begins with exotic re- and ends in exotic -ant, it’s a long word, and the phonology doesn’t seem quite English either. And it’s uncommon, not an everyday word. It’s obviously foreign. Where is the news value???
    Now, if people knew that beautiful or spine are not native in English, that would be remarkable.
    Concerning the singular pant, “the rest of the world” is an overgeneralization even if you mean Standard Average European. We’ve been having it in German for a long time (Hose, Lederhose) — I mean, have you ever seen a single trouser leg?!? –, also with glasses (Brille) and the like. By analogy, we also have singular jeans (decried by the few existing prescriptivists) and leggin(g)s. Scissors and bellows seem to never have been plural in the first place, however.

  19. I love the way these threads go in completely unexpected directions.
    I wonder if they do that to mark themselves as experts or something.
    It’s just jargon, or shop talk; every profession has it. It’s inevitable that people who work in a particular area develop specialized usages that sound odd to outsiders. Mathematicians use group and field in specialized ways, editors use blues and proofs, and so on. It’s not to “mark themselves as experts,” it’s just the way they use language, and they don’t really think about how it might strike other people.

  20. The reason for pant is actually very simple, as I understand it: salespeople are faced with describing one particular pair while surrounded by other pair, and are looking for a more specific way to refer to them than “these pants here”. Sure, they could say, “this pair of pants has the following features,” but how much easier to just say, “this pant has…”? It’s kind of silly to think of pants as plural in this day and age, anyways; I, for one, welcome our new singular pant overlords.

  21. Richard Hershberger says:

    On the topic of reanalyzing singular and plural forms, an example that has gone largely unremarked upon is “innings”. This is both the singular and plural form in cricket. It is also frequently seen this way in early baseball. For a time both “inning” and “innings” were seen used as singular, but by the 1870s or so the singular “innings” was uncommon. Nowadays it is unheard of in a baseball context.

  22. Isn’t that use of “sell” the ‘middle voice’ as in “his books read well” and “this bread makes good sandwiches” and “he doesn’t frighten easily”?
    In all cases the object of the normal use of the verb has become the subject, but the verb is not passive, no actor is specified (and would be weird if it were) and an adverbial is the complement.

  23. Wasn’t there a TV commercial from decades ago for some OTC stomach remedy where one tourist says to the other, “look, Mexican tuh-mails”?
    Thankfully now, on a mild Lou Dobbs tip, Dunkin’ Donuts is letting coffee drinkers order in English instead of Fritalian (warning: video link starts playing TMBG song that’s sure to annoy your officemates right away). No hint of irony that it’s lattes you’re ordering.

  24. In contrast to the English singularization of ‘tamales’ as ‘tamale’ is the English singularization of ‘blintzes’ as ‘blintz;’ The Yiddish singular form is ‘blintse.’

  25. Terry Collmann says:

    I’m surprised nobody in the singular/plural debate has yet mentioned pea – which, of course, was wrongly formed under the erroneous believe that the real singular word, pease, must be a plural … the actual plural being peasen. Pease, as a word and spelling, survives only in the expression pease pudding …
    Curiously, here in the UK there is a singular-to-plural change I keep coming across, where shop assistants handing back change for, say, £5.99, tell you you’re getting “one pence change”.

  26. English-speakers may indeed differentiate between Latinate and native material – I remember reading a commne ttthat one way in which Yeats differs from English poets is that he often will use a Latinate word to carry the main rhyme or the main emotional impact of a line. So apparently Englsih poets and their reading public do draw a distinction.
    There are lots of examples where -in is used instead of -un because the word is Latinate, along with a fair numebr of counter-examples where Latinate affixes get tacked onto native words.
    What does “recalcitrant” actaully men – someone digging their shoes in, or someone all calcified and rigid?

  27. Isn’t that use of “sell” the ‘middle voice’ as in “his books read well” and “this bread makes good sandwiches” and “he doesn’t frighten easily”?
    Aha. Some people like to analyse that way. Because tradition has it that we standardly distinguish an active voice and a passive voice already, constructions like he doesn’t frighten easily are assigned an easily accessible third option borrowed from the grammar of other languages: middle voice. But I say this doesn’t show how our verbs actually behave. I say that there is indeed a separate middle voice in English, but it is not what you get in he doesn’t frighten easily or in those pants sell well. Let’s look at forms of the verb turn, which occurs naturally in all three voices:
    He turns the doorknob, but the door is locked.
    [active (and transitive)]
    You can do different things with a doorknob. She polishes, he turns, I paint.
    [active (and intransitive)]
    The earth turns on its axis, no matter what we do.
    He turns on his heel and leaves.
    The doorknob turns easily, offering no resistance.
    The doorknob is turned, and the unseen intruder enters.
    [passive, the more usual and robust form]
    Other passive examples, with other verbs:
    Choose your cleaning cloth carefully: the surface of the table scratches.
    Such a looker. She photographs like a dream!
    (Look itself is certainly worthy of analysis, too.)
    Another way, yes?

  28. “Because -calcitrant is a Latin root, it will be negated with ­in- and not un-.”
    Yes, obviously the previous commenters who reject this as a fixed rule must be correct. (“Unnecessary” and “unspectacular” and “unfix” and “unsatisfied” come to mind off the top of my head as Latin roots with the “non-latinate” prefix; there must be many hundreds more like that.
    This passage, though, is a reminder of how much linguists love rules, even sometimes to the detriment of our clarity of vision.

  29. I hadn’t heard this variant before. Couldn’t the “in” come from a conflation with “intransigent”, rather than subconscious analysis of Latinate roots?
    Jim – think “kicking back” rather than calcification. The Italian “calcio” for soccer always reminds me of this.

  30. David Marjanovi? says:

    Then what about “because -calcitrant is a Latin root, it has a high chance of being negated with in- and not un-”?
    I don’t think “necessary” is perceived as foreign anymore — it certainly doesn’t sound so, except for its length –, and that “fix” is not native is not even obvious in German to German monoglots.

  31. i guess i’ve understood recalcitrant fairly literally, as in ‘kicking back’. I vaguely remember looking it up in the dictionary when I first encountered it. It seemed like a nice metaphor for a stubborn child, so it was fairly easy to remember. incalcitrant reads like ‘kicking in’ or something which smacks of self-destruction. But here’s my question. How much productivity does a word need to escape being opaque? It it because I have that literal reading of recalcitrant that incalcitrant seems impossible?

  32. “Kicking back” That makes sense if you visualize it. Of course that means smething else in colloquial English. I was joking about calcification.

  33. Oh, wow, I’d been quoted and didn’t even know it! That’s what I get for falling off the face of the earth.
    I’ve long been meaning to write a post about cephalopods in the ancient world, but obviously haven’t been able to get around to it.
    BTW, when I hear “incalcitrant tamale”, my first thought is that it’s a pun on calx, which means “heel” of course, but also “lime” (c.f. Spanish cal), which is of course a necessary ingredient in tamales!
    As for the tamale~tamal variation, I should point out that I while back I had a discussion with another Mad Latinist about what to call various Mexican dishes in Latin. For “tamale” I suggested just tamale -is n.. The fact that this is an anglicism is disturbing, but there’s also something nicely appropriate about this: Latin words that end in -ale -is n. often have by forms in -al is n. (and more so vice versa), so I say tamale you say tamal, and we’ll be just fine ;)

  34. Oops, forgot you can’t do links here. “Lime: was meant to link to .

  35. Dude, of course you can do links here. You just have to put quotes around the URL inside the a href. Using my Magic Powers, I did it for you. Gratias age!

  36. Thanks! While we’re at it, see also nixtamalization (yup, that link works!) ;)

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