Feckless, Hapless and Gormless

Up next, we unscrew the inscrutable.

Dear Word Detective: What are the “feck” and “hap” that the “feckless” and “hapless” lack? — Allan Pratt, Tempe, AZ.

Well, some questions aren’t easily answered, you know. As the late great Barry Mann put it, “Who put the bomp / In the bomp bah bomp bah bomp? / Who put the ram / In the ramalama ding dong? / Who put the bop / In the bop shoo bop shoo bop? / Who put the dip / In the dip da dip da dip?” I think scientists have since figured out that it was the Higgs boson, but you get my point. Knowing stuff is hard.

Fortunately (especially for me, because the words “I don’t know” give me a headache), you’ve picked two words that are both enormously useful and well-documented. And because this question puts me in a good mood, I’m going to include, at no extra cost to you, a free bonus “less” word that you can use to mystify and impress your friends! I’d say that operators are standing by, but I haven’t actually answered the phone in years.

“Feckless” is a great word that first appeared in print in English in the 15th century and is still going strong today (“Hillary Clinton has faced Silvio Berlusconi for the first time since the Italian Prime Minister was dismissed as ‘feckless, vain, and ineffective as a modern leader’ in US State Department cables released by WikiLeaks,” Telegraph (UK), 12/1/10). In its most commonly-used sense, “feckless” means “weak, helpless, useless, incompetent and/or irresponsible.” The “feck” in “feckless” comes from the dialects of Scotland and Northern England, where since the 15th century it has meant “vigor, energy, efficiency,” and the root of “feck” and “feckless” is so simple as to be hiding in plain sight. “Feck” is just an aphetic, or cropped, form of “effect,” so someone who is “feckless” is, in the most literal sense, “ineffective,” i.e., of no use to anyone.

If relying on a “feckless” person is a waste of time, hanging out with a “hapless” person is not much better, although your reaction is more likely to be one of sympathy (and perhaps a justifiable desire to back away slowly) than irritation. To be “hapless” is to be relentlessly unlucky, devoid of success, and the sort of person whose every step is dogged by black clouds of misfortune. “Hapless,” which first appeared in print back in 1569, is the lack of “hap,” an archaic (13th century, from the Old Norse “happ”) word for chance, good fortune, or simply an event, whether good or bad. In “hapless,” what’s lacking is good luck, but other words formed on “hap” vary. “Happy” originally meant “having good fortune,” but our verb “to happen” originally carried a sense of events occurring by pure chance, whether for good or bad. That sense of “random chance” also lies at the root of our modern “happenstance,” “perhaps,” and the semi-obscure “mayhaps.” A “mishap,” however, is clearly an unfortunate occurrence.

And now for our bonus word, far less commonly heard today than either “feckless” or “hapless,” but one that will never be obsolete as long as people are born with rocks where their brains should be. It’s “gormless,” a fine old English word meaning “without common sense; clueless.” The root of “gormless,” which first appeared in print in the 18th century, was the archaic English dialect word “gome,” derived from the Old Norse “gaum,” which meant “attention, notice or care,” commonly found in the expression “to take gome,” meaning “to take heed, pay attention.” While “gorm” by itself is considered obscure today, “gormless” is very much alive, albeit more often heard in the UK than the US.

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