Synonyms for “unkempt”

Two days ago we quoted a letter to The Times from 1968, which described some UEA students as “childishly noisy”, “completely lacking in manners” and “unkempt”.

The Oxford English Dictionary has various defintions of unkempt. The one intended by the letter-writer would seem to be:

Of a person’s or (occasionally) an animal’s appearance, condition, etc.: characterized by uncombed or untidy hair; (more generally) scruffy, dishevelled.

The OED’s Historical Thesaurus lists this meaning under: the world > physical sensation > cleanness and dirtiness > dirtiness >  [adjective] > dirty and mean. Words in this category (with the earliest year in which they were recorded) are:

  • ungoderly c1400
  • sluttish 1549
  • squalid 1596
  • scrubbing 1603
  • sordid 1611
  • snotty 1681
  • frowzy 1710
  • grub 1719
  • seedy 1725
  • unkempt 1838
  • grubby 1844
  • crumby 1859
  • ratty 1867
  • scruffy 1871
  • scrutty 1914
  • scummy 1932
  • ribby 1936
  • raunchy 1937
  • sleazy 1941
  • scroungy 1948
  • manky 1958
  • grungy 1965
  • scungy 1966
  • scuzzy 1969
  • scrungy 1974

Words with similar meanings include grimy, tatty, shabby, dowdy and mangy.

You may have noticed how most of these words have two syllables and end in y. About half of them begin with s. This may be an example of sound symbolism or iconicity.