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What Does Unkempt Mean?

  • Unkempt is an adjective that literally means “not well-combed.”
  • It is usually used to describe a person’s appearance, although it can also be applied to objects.
  • Unkept is an adjective that means “not kept” or “neglected,” but it’s not usually used for people.

We’ve all had periods when taking care of our appearance wasn’t high on our list of priorities. Ever popped out in the middle of the night to get diapers for a new baby? Ever taken a short break after days of cramming for midterms? If you have, you probably know what it means to be unkempt.

What Does Unkempt Mean?

The adjective unkempt comes from the prefix un- and the root kempt. The “un” part we’re all familiar with—it means “not.” But the “kempt” part? What does that mean?

Well, you can be forgiven for not knowing. Unkempt is a very old adjective. It was first recorded in the 1570s, and back then kempt meant “well combed” or “neat.” As time passed, we stopped using kempt, but unkempt stuck around. So, when you’re saying that someone is unkempt, you’re literally saying that their hair is messy. Of course, today we use the adjective to describe more than just messy hair. Anything that’s messy, untidy, or disheveled can be called unkempt. It’s just that it’s most commonly used to describe someone’s appearance:

I could tell from John’s unkempt appearance that he had been up all night.

You should comb your hair before that meeting—you don’t want to look unkempt when you’re aiming for a promotion.

Unkempt vs. Unkept

Unkempt and unkept are not two different spellings of the same word.

Unkept comes from applying the prefix un- to the verb keep, and the combination of the two gets you a word that means either “not kept” or “neglected.” As such, it’s far more likely to be used to describe objects than people. But unkempt is also sometimes used to describe something other than people, so the usage of the two might overlap. That doesn’t make them the same, though.

Examples: Unkempt in a Sentence

They look, well, kind of messy and unkempt.

And shooting out of my ears in all directions like an unkempt Albert Einstein (except without the brains).

Even when the garden looks unkempt and uncared for, below the surface magic is happening.

The 38-year-old former Dawson’s Creek heartthrob appeared unkempt with his dark curly hair left tousled and his thick scruffy beard growing unclipped.

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