Saturday, 2 January 2010

Gormless, Feckless, Reckless and Ruthless

I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.
   - The Code of the Woosters, P.G. Wodehouse

The resurrection of palimpsest words is a simple, practically failsafe, form of humour. There are thousands of them loitering in the language like cripples from an old war: neither kempt, couth nor combobulated. Languages are untidy and untidiable. They may be spick but they are seldom if ever span.

So here are four of them: all less-words.

Gorm (spelled all sorts of ways) was a Scandinavian word meaning sense or understanding. As Orm the monk put it:

& 3unnc birrþ nimenn mikell gom/To þæwenn 3unnkerr chilldre

A sentiment with which we can all, I'm sure, agree. Gorm seems to have remained a popular word in the North of England, but was rarely written down as Northeners couldn't write because their fingers were numb from the perpetual cold.

However, in the nineteenth century literacy spread beyond the Watford Gap and Emily Bronte wrote a book called Wuthering Heights, in which is the line:

Did I ever look so stupid: so gormless as Joseph calls it?

Joseph is a servant who speaks with a strong Yorkshire accent and the word gormless is clearly being brought in as an example of one of his dialect terms. I don't know if it is this one novel that was responsible but from the mid-nineteenth century onward gormless seems to have spread and spread whilst its lessless original stayed at home on the moors and slowly pined away and perished.

Once upon a time there was the word effect. It was a happy, useful, innocent word until it went to Scotland. The Scots are like northeners except more so. Once north of Hadrian's Best Idea, the word effect was cruelly robbed of its extremities and became feck. Those indolent, vigourless Scotsmen who had no effect on things were therefore feckless. This time it was not Bronte but Thomas Carlyle, a Scot, who brought the word into common usage. He used it to describe his wife and the Irish, of whom the less said the better.

It's quite hard to see exactly how Carlyle used the word. This from a letter of 1842:

Poor Allan's dust was laid in Kensal Green,—far enough from his native Kirkmahoe. M'Diarmid has a well-meant but very feckless Article upon him this week.

The article in question was in the Dumfries Courier and though I have a complete bound set of every Dumfries Courier ever published in my pantry, I can't be bothered to look it up and find out whether the article was effectless or simply lazy. In another Carlyle wrote that the summer had made his wife feckless and he even described how living with her in London had turned the couple into "a feckless pair of bodies," "a pair of miserable creatures".  Anyway, Carlyle used feckless but not, that I've ever been able to find, feck and so the one word lived while the other drowned in some lonely loch.

Reckless is far simpler and there's more poetry in it, which is the important thing. Reck used to mean care (although it is etymologically far from reckon). As Chaucer put it.

I recke nought what wrong that thou me profre,
For I can suffre it as a philosóphre.

Shakespeare uses the word too, yet it has an archaic feel. In Venus and Adonis he wrote:
I reck not though I end my life to-day
What recketh he his rider's angry stir,
His flattering 'Holla,' or his 'Stand, I say'?
What cares he now for curb or pricking spur?
For rich caparisons or trapping gay?
He sees his love, and nothing else he sees,
For nothing else with his proud sight agrees.

Shakespeare uses recketh, but only in apposition to cares. The implication, I suspect, is that the word was already archaic and needed the explanatory synonym. In Hamlet Ophelia chides her brother thus:

Do not as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads
And recks not his own rede.
Reck is here not explained (except by context) but coupled with another archaic word in old-fashioned alliteration. Meanwhile, the reckless two lines before stands on its own among its modern peers. Shakespeare used reckless six times, as much as all the other recks, reckeths and reckeds put together. Reck must already have been fading, reckless rushing headlong to the future.
The last word for this post (which could have gone on forever and may already have felt as though it has) is ruthless. It's nice and clear and simple. Ruth meant regret and related to rue as truth relates to true. As Milton put it in Lycidas:
Look homeward, Angel, now, and melt with ruth
I don't know why this blog keeps mentioning Lycidas. Anyone would think I was obsessed, which I'm not. I can go for hours without even reading it. I'm obsessed with Tennyson and whisky, but never seem to mention either.

This post could have gone on forever, but I've become listless.
Brahms, feeling Lisztless


  1. How big is your pantry? That you run a Scotch publishing empire from it is impressive.

  2. Brilliantly interesting post, thank you. Feckless in particular is fascinating. Have you seen this list of similar fossils?
    I'd love to know how 'inept' and 'unkempt' came about...