The Friday Fillip: All the Odd Things We Lack

Absence may make the heart grow fonder (the “liquor is quicker” crowd would claim it’s absinthe that really does the fonding), but it certainly leaves us holding some strange states in English. In this fillip I want to take a look at one group of things that, well, aren’t there.

As you know, the language has a number of ways of bundling a lack into a word. For one thing, there’s “lack” itself. Thus, lacklustre, for instance. Then there are the prefixes dis-, de-, in-, dys-, un-, and the like, that can flip something to its opposite or simply negate it. Nevertheless, it’s some of the suffix –less words that I want to examine today.

Take “feckless” for example. What, you might ask, is this “feck” (that my spell-checker wants to correct to “deck”)? Turns out it’s a pretty old word that, when used with “the,” means the bulk or the greater part of something, and by extension, a large number or quantity. It’s a cousin of “effect.” “Feckful” was used to mean effective or vigorous; so “feckless” is, as we know, feeble or shiftless.

This isn’t the only word that we’ve retained in the lack-form, while lacking the have-form:

  • reckless,” a word in frequent use among law folk, yields “reck”—which, used with “of,” meant to take care or thought for something, as I reck of this fillip.
  • bootless,” another word that’s connected to law, though not anymore—because the “boot” here is “bote,” which was in Saxon times compensation paid for a wrong (and eventually coming in “bootless” to mean more “remedy,” “profit,” or “purpose”).
  • hapless” is a little easier, because “hap” still shows up in “happen” and “haphazard,” for instance, with its original sense of “chance,” “luck,” or “fortune” still pretty much intact.
  • ruthless” requires “ruth,” which turns out to have “rue” buried in it, a word still with us and still meaning pretty much regret, sorrow, grief or distress.
  • gormless” is one of my favourites, a Brit description for someone “wanting sense or discernment,” as the OED so delicately puts it. But the “gorm” lacking here, is really “gaum” (there’s an alternative spelling of gormless as “gaumless”) meaning “understanding” and which in turn was once “gome,” meaning “a man,” and featured in “bridegome” which is now bridegroom, of course.


  1. May I be the first to yield to the temptation to say how gruntled I am to see such an ept review of this topic? You certainly show us how to do more with -less.