or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Less and Less

A couple of days ago I was writing about the word "reckless", and that brought to mind another word that seems like a negation of a word that no longer exists, if it ever did: "ruthless". What, if anything, is "ruth"?

Since "ruthless" means "cruel and unfeeling", "ruth" must be its opposite, and it is: it means "compassion; sorrow; remorse". And where might it have come from? Despite its extreme brevity, it's a compound word, constructed from "rue" ("to bitterly regret; to feel sorrow") and the suffix "-th" with which we can create abstract nouns from verbs ("growth") or adjectives ("warmth").

I did a very quick scan of the Morewords list for "*less" (all words in its dictionary, not guaranteed to be complete, which end in "-less"), and found one more word (there may be others) that seems to have lost its source: "feckless". Was there a "feck"? Of course there was. As soon as I typed the word, I remembered an old, probably British expression, "feck and fettle", for which there's only one Google match, but that one is enough; I didn't just make it up. (I don't quite know what it means, though, but no matter; it's not something I'm likely to use tomorrow.) "Feck" is a dialectical abbreviation of "effect", and it has three meanings: "effect", "effectiveness", or "amount", which I'm guessing is a sideways sense of "effects" (i.e. the stuff you own). "Feckless" means "incompetent" or "indifferent"; it is more or less exactly parallel to "ineffectual", which explains the "feck".

"Feck" is also, if you are the appalling, Tourettish, demented Father Jack Hackett, a convenient oath when you can't say "fuck". One of our all-time favourite quotes:

:Mrs Doyle (proffering a cup of tea): And what do you say to a cup?


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