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Feckless

Q From Lee Burough in Colorado Springs, USA: We’ve never heard the word feckless here in our part of the USA. Yet we hear it occasionally in BBC television productions. What is its origin? Why isn’t it used here?

A These days it’s not particularly common anywhere, I would guess, though I’m surprised it has completely vanished from your part of the world; on the other hand, it does tend to appear more often in writing than in speech, and to my ear it does sound a touch old-fashioned. It’s an excellent example of a word for which only the negative now exists; some other examples are gormless, ruthless, and hapless. At first feck was a Scots word, a cropped form of effect, so to say that a person is feckless is to describe them as ineffective. But it also suggests more strongly that a person is lazy, incompetent, unreliable, or irresponsible. It’s a powerful word, one it would be good to keep in the language. Try using it a few times — perhaps you’ll persuade people to take it up again ...

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Jun. 2000

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

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Last modified: 3 June 2000.