If you discombobulated a thingamabob, would you absquatulate? What if someone gave you a bunch of pieces of old machinery and you screwed them up together to make a machine as curious as a Rowland Emmet fancy but less, um, obvious? But if you made some odd machine from assorted bits, would that be discombobulation or recombobulation?

Let’s look at the bits. You might want to grab at the opening disco, but there’s no disco ball or discobolus here. It’s dis – as in dismantle, disappear, disgust, and other words of removal and destruction – plus com – as in combine, compliment, complement, and other words of joining and coming together (also seen as con in many other places; the com version goes before b, p, and m). And ul as in molecule and spatula and congratulate: a diminutive suffix. And ate, a suffix that makes a verb relating to making. And bob.

Who’s bob? That’s the odd piece out. It’s the ornamental figure in the middle of an arrangement of cogwheels. It’s what takes an almost plausible assortment of affixes and brings it down to earth. It’s the root in the middle, of course; the others are prefixes and suffixes. Bob is the American heart of this word. Picture Bob as an inventor smoking a pipe and wearing a housecoat, surrounded by junk-shop bits. This word, you see, is a fake-fancy word that came out of an early-mid-1800s fad for such confections. Other examples include absquatulate, which shows up first in 1830. The bob could be related to thingamabob, though that word first appeared nearly a century earlier and across the Atlantic.

The first appearance of discombobulate is in 1825, except that it’s not discombobulate. It’s discomboberate. There’s also discombobracate around the same time. You will also see discombooberate. But one thing you will see nearly all of them with is a d on the end: they’re typically used as past-participle adjectives. We seldom talk about a person discombobulating something; rather, things and people just become – or are – discombobulated: disturbed, messed up, confused.

You could say that a word that gets mixed up is discombobulated. Loxicoglody, colisexogy, kexilolozy, all could be discombobulated versions of lexicology. But discombobulate is not a discombobulated version of anything. There is no word it is trying and failing to be. It has been combobulated from obvious morphological doodads – or recombobulated, if you feel they have first been dismantled. It is as flashy as a disco ball and as beep-boopy as BB8, but it conveys sense and attitude quite efficiently. If you find it faintly discomfiting, so much the better, Bob. But it shouldn’t discombobulate you.

3 responses to “discombobulate

  1. Pingback: The Second Coming (Variations on a Theme by Yeats) | Bag of Anything

  2. My Dad — whose name, for what it’s worth, is Bob — pronounced it “discaboobalated.”

    And who was it wrote:

    There’s a book I read, predicted this: come
    the millenium, and things would fall apart, get discom

    I think it was Yeats…

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