Words at Play

9 Words for the Wild and Carefree

From 'daredevil' to 'hellbender' and back again


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adjective : recklessly and often ostentatiously daring

Daredevil functions both as an adjective, as defined above, and as a noun meaning "a recklessly bold person." Daredevils do daredevil things—like, historically, daring the Devil. The word has a literary history that spans more than 400 years, from Thomas Otway's 1683 play The Atheist ("Daredevil" is the name of the eponymous atheist), to the Marvel superhero first introduced in 1964.

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adjective : marked by capriciousness, recklessness, or foolishness

Your thinking cap helps you think and your madcap makes you mad—as in "like the Hatter from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," not "angry." Although madcap is more familiar as an adjective, Shakespeare liked the noun version of this word, which in fact never applied to a literal cap, but referred to a madcap person: "Come on, you madcap; I'll to the alehouse with you presently; where, for one shot of five pence, thou shalt have five thousand welcomes" (The Two Gentlemen of Verona). As an adjective the word typically describes schemes and antics and zany movie plots.

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adjective : blithely unconcerned : carefree

The meaning of happy-go-lucky is apparent in its parts, and develops more layers of meaning if you know some lexical history. Happy in its original use meant "lucky" or "fortunate," and how happy indeed are those who go as the lucky do: happily unconcerned. Herman Melville somewhat unconventionally employed happy-go-lucky as a noun in Moby Dick: "Stubb was the second mate…. A happy-go-lucky; neither craven nor valiant; taking perils as they came with an indifferent air…. Good-humored, easy, and careless, he presided over his whale-boat as if the most deadly encounter were but a dinner, and his crew all invited guests."

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adjective : foolishly adventurous and bold : rash

Foolhardy looks like an English word (and it is, of course), but it made its way into the language more than 700 years ago from Old French, from fol hardi, a joining together of fol, meaning "foolish," and hardi, meaning "bold, brave." The word hardy itself comes from hardi; its original meaning is "bold, brave," but it now most often describes plants and people able to endure difficulties.

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adjective : free from care : lighthearted

Our carefree lightsome (which also means "airy, nimble") takes its meaning from the weight-related meaning of light, but there is another lightsome, meaning "bright" or "giving light," which comes from the bright and shiny light. Yes, you heard us correctly: the not-dark light and the not-heavy light are etymologically distinct. Both are indirectly from Latin: the first is related to lucēre, which also gave us lucid and translucent; the second is related to levis, which also gave us levity.

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adjective : having or showing reckless disregard for safety or personal welfare

The adjective kamikaze has its origin in a weather event: in the 13th century, Kublai Khan, the Mongol emperor of China, tried to conquer Japan by sending out great fleets of ships—on two separate occasions. Both times, the efforts were thwarted by storms, which the Japanese took to be protection from the gods. They dubbed their inclement salvation kamikaze, "divine wind." Six and a half centuries later, during World War II, Japanese members of a special air corps assigned to make suicidal crashes on targets were called kamikaze, after the storms that had saved the country from their 13th century would-be invaders. English speakers readily adopted both the noun, which refers to those Japanese pilots or the planes they flew, and the adjective, which can describe kamikaze pilots or people or things having or showing reckless disregard for safety or personal welfare.

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adjective : buoyantly or recklessly carefree or foolish : happy-go-lucky

Slaphappy sounds misleadingly lighthearted: while it's used to describe the carefree and happy-go-lucky, its origin is in a brain injury. When slaphappy was first used in the early-mid 20th century it was used synonymously with punch-drunk to describe those affected with or exhibiting chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition most often associated with athletes such as boxers and football players.

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adjective : lighthearted unconcern : nonchalance

Those who are insouciant are undisturbed—a feature of the word carried over from its etymology. Insouciant comes from French, from in- and soucier, meaning "to trouble, disturb." The Latin sollicitare is the source of that French term (via Old French); it's also the source of solicit, which is most often used to mean "to ask for (something) from people, companies, etc."

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noun, slang : one that is exceedingly reckless or otherwise extreme

While hellbender refers (infrequently) to an extreme or extremely reckless person, it more often refers to a large aquatic salamander that lives in streams in the eastern and central United States. We don't know how they got that name. Neither kind of hellbender is talking.




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