feckless /’fɛkləs/

The suffix -less is usually found added to words to mean “without” or “devoid of.” It’s matchless in its ability to help create new words and in the main, it is added to nouns to make adjectives. So if you have hair, but then lose it, you become hairless. If you have brains, but then stop using them, you become – metaphorically – brainless.

And if you have feck but then lose it, you are feckless.

Most folks are aware of the meaning of feckless in relation to people as  “weak, helpless, lacking in vgor.” They may also be familiar with it being applied to objects as beng “ineffective, feeble, futile, valueless.” But they are less likely to know the word feck from which is is derived.

In the 1500’s, it appeared as a dialect word in Scotland and the north of England to mean “the purpose, drift, tenor, or substance of a statement.” It was also used to described “efficacy, efficiency, and value.” This is the obvious root meaning of the word feckless – being devoid of feck.

Actually, it can be seen in Henry the Minstrel’s The actis and deidis of the illustere and vailzeand campioun Schir William Wallace (c1460) in the phrase, “Swa sall we fend the fek of this regioun.” Here it means “amount, quantity… greatest part, practically the whole.”

There is a more obscure meaning that first appears in 1701 – one of the stomachs of a ruminant. This may, in turn, be a variant of the word faik, which can mean “folded,” like the inside of a stomach. Those of you who have ever been subjected to that unappealing delicacy called “tripe” will know exactly what I mean by “folds in the stomach!”

Tripe - folded cow's stomach

Tripe - folded cow's stomach

Feck can also be used as a salng verb for “to steal.” James Joyce uses it in Portrait of an Artist as  Young Man; “They had fecked cash out of the rector’s room.” This seems to me such a wonderful verb that I am tempted to start using it. Maybe.

The similarity in sound between feck and fuck has also lead to it being used as a euphemism. It inflects in the same way fuck does, hence its value. The Urban Dictionary suggests that this meaning originated in Ireland although this may be due to the frequency of its use in the mid-90’s UK sit-com, Father Ted. I couldn’t find any sources to sat when the euphemistic feck first appeared but it is clearly a phonetic derivation.

Feck Off - a euphemism

Feck Off - a euphemism

It can be used as an adjective, feckful, and even an adverb, feckfully, but the incidence of these words in modern times (20th and 21st centuries) is woefully small. Feckful gets just over 1000 ghits and feckfully just about scrapes together 300, of which many are simply web sites defining the word feck in the first place.

Who would have thought that the word feckless could have been so interesting?



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Filed under Etymology, Morphology

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