Sometimes '-less' Is More

'Ruthless,' 'feckless,' and more '-less' words


hapless guy holding burnt wire photo

Definition - having no luck

Hapless comes from hap, a small word blessed with a large number of meanings. Most of these have little to do with hapless; the one that does is defined as “chance, fortune” and comes from the Old Norse happ (meaning “good luck”).

Though, sharpe the seede, by Anger sowen
we all (almost) confesse:
And hard his hap we aye account,
who Anger doth possesse:
Yet haplesse shalt thou (Reader) reape,
such fruit from ANGERS soile.
Jane Anger, her protection for women, 1589

gormless confused man photo

Definition - lacking intelligence

If one can be gormless does that of necessity mean that one can have gorm? Maybe! In this case one can (if it were not so the word wouldn’t be on this list), although we trace gormless from the English dialect word gaum (meaning “attention, understanding”). Gormless is labeled as informal, and is mainly found in British use.

The lorry that had missed his body by a hair’s-breadth came to a stop with a grinding of brakes, and a rush of language from the driver.
”What are you doing standing there in the dark, you great gormless fool?” he wanted to know.
The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, Aus.), 24 Feb. 1941

feckless turtle in its shell photo

Definition - weak, ineffective

Not only does our language have feckless and feck (which in this case means “worth, value”), but also lesser-known words such as feckful and feckly. Feck, which is Scottish in origin and most current use, as other meanings in addition to “worth,” including “the greater share,” “part, portion,” and “a number or quantity especially when large.”

The things I said gif that thou wald deny,
Meaning to wry the verity with wyles,
Lick where I laid, and pickle of that pye,
Thy knavery credence fra thee quite exyles,
Thy feckles folly all the aire defyles,
I find sa many faults, ilk ane ouer vther,
First I must tell thee all thy statelyy styles,
And syne bequeath thee to thy birken brother.

Fond flytter, shit shyter, bacon bytter, all defyl'd,
Blunt bleittar, paddock pricker, pudding eiter, perverse,
Hen plucker, closet mucker, house cucker, very vyld,
Tauny cheiks, I thinke thou speiks, with thy breeks, foul erse,
Woodtyk, hoodpyk, ay like to liue in lacke,
Flowre the pin scabbed skin, eat it in, that thou spake.
— Alexander Montgomerie, The flyting betwixt Montgomery and Polwart, 1621

guerdonless iou photo

Definition - receiving no guerdon

For those legions of dictionary-readers who have seen the word guerdonless, but, lacking sufficient energy to look the word up, were forced to wile away minutes of their lives pondering “what’s a guerdon?” we have an answer for you. Guerdon is defined as “reward, recompense.”

If some of Vertues traine, for Prince and Countries good,
To shew their faithfull hearts, shall hazard life and blood,
And guerdonlesse depart, without their due reward,
Small is th'encouragement, th'example verie hard.
— (Anon.), A pleasant comedie, 1602

plackless empty wallet photo

Definition - penniless

The plack was a small billon coin of Scotland issued from James III (second half of 15th century) to James VI (early 17th century). So if you need an archaic and inscrutable (outside of Scotland) way of saying “penniless” this word is for you.

”Eh! mon,” said Andrew, with a dismal sigh, “sie an uncanny trick as Scot never afore pit on anither. I bocht Jock Anderson’s baking business, ye ken, an I gied him a hantle mair siller, as there seemed to be a rowth o’ gude book customers; but, de’ils be in’t, if the auld sinner hadn’t wiled a’ the plackless boddies in our neeberhood to tak twa, or may be, three loaves o’ fill-priced wheaten bread a week, just to gar me think he’d gotten a rattlin trade.”
Hereford Times (Hereford, Eng.), 12 Oct. 1839

reckless fast driving photo

Definition - marked by lack of proper caution : careless of consequences

The reck of reckless means “worry, care,” and comes from the Middle English recken, meaning “to take heed.” It is etymologically unrelated to wreck.

The appetite for admiration and small capacity for self-controul which I inherited from my father, nursed by adversity, made me daring and reckless.
— Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, The Last Man, 1826

ruthless angry cat photo

Definition - having no pity

Ruth means “compassion for the misery of another,” or “sorrow for one's own faults,” and comes from the Middle English ruen (meaning “to rue”). In addition to the well-known ruthless, one can be ruthful, (“tender,” “woeful,” or “causing sorrow”).

That was why he chose Mugwe to act on his behalf in the village and look after his house there, Mugwe, a man he knew to be a great crook. He trusted him because he knew he was ruthless and would never be kind to anybody who tried to oppose the MP.
— Rebeka Njau, Ripples in the Pool, 1978

scatheless workplace safety clip and harness photo

Definition - unharmed

We do not often use scathe so often in modern use, but the word (which as a noun means “harm,” and as a verb means “to assail with withering denunciation”) may often be found as part of larger words. Unscathed (“not injured”) and scathing (“bitterly severe”) are still in common use, as is scatheless … everyone uses that word.

Put a bullet through my heart
a bomb in my hand;
I am scatheless as snow unfallen.
Take those flowers home!
— Phoebe Hesketh, Netting the Sun: New and Collected Poems, 1989




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