Posted by: travelrat | February 19, 2010

The Vanished Positive

An unexpected source of new, un-needed words is not, as you might expect, the corporate world, but the military. For an example, they took the word ‘embark’, meaning to get on a ship, and extended it to other forms of transport, to give us embus, emplane and entrain. Apart from the more exclusive cavalry regiments; they always ‘mount’ anything from a horse to a C-130.

The issue arises when they get to the other end … they debus, deplane or detrain,. But, just a minute! If you’re on a ship, you don’t ‘debark’; you disembark. So, logically, shouldn’t they ‘disembus’ … etc.

However, since when did logic have anything to do with the English language? I’ve often argued that, if we have ‘oxen’, why don’t we say ‘foxen’ or ‘boxen’?

And, there’s what I call the ‘Vanished Positive’. Normally, you’d make a word negative by prefixing it ‘un-‘, ‘in-‘ ‘dis-’ or ‘non-’ … which means, you can be armed or unarmed (you can also ‘disarm’ someone by taking their weapons away); you can be competent or incompetent; charged or discharged.

BUT for some strange reason, you can be disgusting, but not gusting; inane but not ane, discreet, but not creet … in fact, the opposite of discreet is indiscreet. You can be insolent but not solent … unless you’re the body of water between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.


  1. I’ve always wondered why you can be ruthless but not ruthful.

    Can you embark even if you aren’t travelling on a barque?

    • Good one!

      We should have a separate compartment for that, along with reckless, feckless and gormless (sounds like a comedy act, or a firm of solicitors, doesn’t it?)

      I’ve never heard of anyone emferrying, emcruiseshipping or emdestroyering, so I guess ’embark’ covers anything that floats?

  2. I had no idea about the embus, emplane and entrain. I’m going to use them from now on!

    • I wouldn’t expect you to … it’s ‘Armyspeak’; everyone else (including the Air Force) just ‘boards’ a vehicle or aircraft.

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