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Q From Allan Todd, New Zealand: I have heard and used hapless, but have often wondered where this word originated, what its opposite is and what a hap could possibly be!

A Hapless is another of those famous unpaired negatives, like gormless, ruthless, and feckless.

At one time, you could indeed have had some hap. It was a state of luck or fortune, in particular some chance occurrence that might befall you, for good or ill, though — like luck and fortune — it tended to accentuate the positive. It comes from a Scandinavian source, was first recorded in the Middle English period, around 1200, but survived in mainstream use into the nineteenth century — it was still well enough known to appear in the definitions of some words in the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary around the end of that century. If you were hapless, you lacked the chance to gain good fortune and so were unfortunate or unlucky.

Though hap itself is now archaic, some very familiar words come from it, including happy; this originally referred to a state of good fortune, from which today’s meaning evolved in the sixteenth century. The verb happen evolved out of hap, and can still have a strong sense of something coming about by chance (“We happened to meet in the supermarket”). Haphazard once meant mere chance or a lack of design, from which comes our modern idea of an absence of organisation. Other compounds we still use today are perhaps and mishap (which was once a state of misfortune, ill chance, or bad luck). And mayhap, perhaps or possibly, survives in dialect.

There has never been a direct opposite — no hapful — though there have been at various times a number of other compounds: by hap or haply (by chance or accident), and goodhap (good fortune).

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 3 Mar. 2007

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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 March 2007.