During the December 15, 2015, GOP debate Chris Christie, presidential hopeful and current governor of New Jersey, referred to President Obama as a “feckless weakling”. Judging by dictionary lookups following the remark, one thing seems clear: People appear to have a fairly good idea of the meaning of the word weakling, but feckless is more obscure.
Feckless is defined as ‘weak and ineffective’ or ‘worthless and irresponsible’, and has been used in English since the end of the 16th century. The root is a Scots word feck (or fek), which carries a variety of meanings, including ‘majority’, ‘portion’, ‘large quantity’, and ‘worth or value’ (the sense most relevant here).
So yes, feck is a real thing, and being feckless means that you are lacking in it. Feckless always seems to carry a certain sting with its use, as when Robert Burns, in his poem Ode To A Haggis, described some ‘poor devil’ who was ‘as feckless as a wither’d rash.’ Of the words from last night’s debate that have shown a sharply increased number of lookups, feckless stands out insofar as it is the only one with the whiff of personal insult to it. Other words spiking after the debate—nuclear, socialism, caliphate, inextricable and precipitous—all have connotations of policy or risk.
Before you ask, there is a word for ‘having more feck.’ That word is feckful—defined in Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged as ‘efficient, effective’. Feckful is chiefly used among the Scottish, so chances are slim that it will be heard in any upcoming debates.