Feckless, Gormless, and the bull, Lost Positive

At dinner Friday night, some musing with a friend about a mutual acquaintance who, I allowed, had once been a feckless young man, which set the two of us onto the word feckless, a “lost positive”, there being no corresponding feckful, or (in modern English) a noun feck for feckless to be based on. That led me (well after dinner) to gormless and to Stella Gibbons’s amazing parody Cold Comfort Farm, where we find the farm’s cows Aimless, Graceless, Feckless, and Pointless (and the bull, Big Business).

Local background. A 5/16/13 posting “Morphology for swine”, with a Pearls Before Swine featuring ruthless (no ruthful or noun ruth) and disgruntled (no gruntled); a link to an enthusiast site on lost positives; and a link to Michael Quinion on -less.

And (I’ll need this in a moment) a 10/3/15 posting “Stark morning names”, including the family name Starkadder from Cold Comfort Farm (with some discussion of the book).

Feckless and gormless. On to NOAD2 on feckless:

feckless adjective lacking initiative or strength of character; irresponsible: a feckless mama’s boy | an unfortunate example of feckless filmmaking | the feckless exploitation of the world’s natural resources. ORIGIN late 16th cent.: from Scots and northern English dialect feck (from effeck, variant of effect) + –less.

So: a northern British dialect noun serving as the base for an adjective in –less, which spread to general English while the base noun did not.

Then to gormless, equally now a negative adjective with no positive counterpart or base noun in the standard language, and equally from a British dialect noun, but otherwise different in most of the details.

From NOAD2:

gormless adjective Brit. informal lacking sense or initiative; foolish: a constantly grinning, rather gormless boy. ORIGIN mid 18th cent. (originally as gaumless): from dialect gaum ‘understanding’ (from Old Norse gaumr ‘care, heed’) + -less.

Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary (1898) has the noun gaum (also spelled gawm) from dialects all over the countryside, from Sussex to Yorkshire at least (it surely was attested in Scotland as well); it seems to have been general British (but non-standard), as was the derived adjective gormless, but the adjective managed to spread into the standard language, though only as an informal, slangy word. Then, although the adjective spread to Canada and Australia, it doesn’t seem to have gotten naturalized in the U.S.

In any case, in standard British English (and related varieties) the adjective gormless is now another isolated negative, lacking both a positive counterpart and a base noun.

That gave me feckless and gormless, so of course Cold Comfort Farm sprung to my mind, and in my mind the parody’s cows Aimless, Graceless, Feckless, and Pointless (and the bull, Big Business) became, in a parody of the parody, Feckless and Gormless (and the bull, Lost Positive). Now to imagine the doings on the farm.


8 Responses to “Feckless, Gormless, and the bull, Lost Positive”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Mike Pope:

    I’m sure you know Jack Winter’s “How I Met My Wife” from the NYer, but on the small chance that you don’t …

    Among the great many things on “lost positives”, this is a gem — and it has some negative polarity items as well as morphological cases.

    • Robert Coren Says:

      This is indeed hilarious. Along these lines, I decided after last night’s baseball game, in which the Red Sox handed the Orioles their first loss of the season, that clearly the Orioles were vincible after all (indeed, the Sox had just vinced them). And I recalled that a year or two ago I remarked of a friend whose life seemed to consist of one misfortune after another that they were distinctly lacking in hap.

  2. georgevreilly Says:

    Feck is a word in Hiberno-English, but its uses bear little relation to feckless. It’s mostly used as a milder form of “fuck” (curse), as in “that fecking eejit”, or occasionally to steal.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feck says it’s also used in Scots.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      From NOAD2:

      feck exclamation Irish informal used to to express annoyance, frustration, impatience, or surprise. ORIGIN 1990s: euphemism for fuck (exclamation).

  3. georgevreilly Says:

    Feck goes back considerably further than the 1990s as a euphemism for fuck. I heard it often in the 1970s and 80s while growing up in Dublin.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      No doubt it does. But lexicographers go on when a word appears in print, and for good reason: people’s memories about what they said or heard when are notoriously undependable (even when these memories seem absolutely clear and vivid).

      That said, for many sorts of words, it’s pretty much a sure thing that they were used in speech well before someone put them into writing.

  4. Bob Richmond Says:

    Have you ever met someone who wasn’t entirely feckless, but was possessed of no more than, say, 600 millifecks?

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