Last semester I took Lexical Semantics class, taught by a (superb) professor from University of Cambridge. It was an interesting class-I’d say, not like any other classes I’ve ever taken. I didn’t work on homework and others since I didn’t take the class with credit, but I worked on the final report. One of the questions in the assignment is “Try to find the most unusual verb starting with “dis-“. Maybe infrequent or obscure? What is the meaning of this verb? ”
Don’t you think it’s an interesting question?
I chose the verb to disembarrass.
to disembarrass: an infrequent, obscure verb. Suppose you found a sentence shouldn’t empires disembarrass themselves of elements which no longer serve a purpose? and you never heard of the verb “disembarrass” used in a sentence before. What would come to your mind?
Most people will relate the transitive verb “disembarrass” with a meaning (a) free of embarrassment, which is really one of the meanings of the verb, although this is not the case with the example sentence provided above. Oddly, the definition of the verb “disembarrass‘” as used in the sentence above is (b) free oneself of (a burden or nuisance), which is the more common meaning used nowadays compared with the previous meaning. The Oxford dictionary also noted that the (a) meaning is a rare meaning of this verb, and this is supported by the fact that the other dictionary such as Merriam-webster and WordNet lexical dictionary (Fellbaum, 1998) even do not list that meaning in their database.
I believe that at the very beginning, the (a) meaning is the original meaning when this word is first used (this is an assumption, without any tangible proof). Looking at the nature of what prefix dis- instantiates when it is added to a verb, this is a logical assumption since the original base word “embarrass” means cause (someone) to feel awkward, self-conscious, or ashamed; in other words, it means to cause someone to feel an embarrassment.
I think it is interesting if we can trace back to how the original (a) meaning became less common, and gradually replaced by the (b) meaning and what triggered this linguistic phenomenon. One of the explanation is that it is not possible for someone to physically do the action of freeing himself from embarrassment, thus the meaning probably changed into (b) meaning since embarrassment, awkward, self-conscious, or ashamed are something that are considered a nuisance or burden (again, this is our, hopefully, logical assumption).
Morphologically, I also believe that this verb does not belong to one of the three instantiations of the prefix dis- as introduced by Andreou (2015), adding an obscurity to this verb.
*waiting for my code to finish running the dependency parsing (–,) *