Here’s an adjective for looking like something the cat dragged in, unravelled, half-shrivelled, perhaps shivering… The strongest echoes are of dish and shovel, but the dish would be dirty and a fortiori the shovel too. Negative notes abound in this word: the opening dis, part of dish but still there to see; the sh that could go both ways but is under bad influence here; and chiefly the vell, the same sound as in the ends of evil, shrivel, snivel – yes, as well as swivel, level, and gravel, but just as flashing lights can mean a disco or a cop car depending on context, the negative tone here draws in the bad side of the family all around. The various ascenders and especially the ll (lacking in the single-l American version) may bring wrinkles to mind… or disarrayed hair.
And it is the messy hair more than the messy clothes that gave form to this word: it may seem like it comes from déshabillé, but it is not undress but untress – Old French deschevelé (des+chevel), “de-haired,” which is to say, first of all, shaven! How dis-tressing (and perhaps distressing, but distress is unrelated to tresses or anything to do with hair, etymologically). But also, pretty much from the beginning, with the hair not on the floor but flung about in disorder – hat or scarf off and looking like something frightened as carved by Bernini. And fair enough – even today hair is among the most likely words to be seen with this word. Others include appearance, slightly, and looking. And perhaps, for blog followers, perfectly. Which suggests a sort of raffish redemption for this unsavory word.