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gailcalled's avatar

Why "feckless" and "hapless" but not "hapful" and "feckful"?

Asked by gailcalled (50776 points ) December 1st, 2007

These are two of my favorite words, as it haps. There’s no “clueful” either, but “cheerful,” “hopeful,” “joyful.”

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17 Answers

christybird's avatar

I’ve also always wondered why you can be “unkempt” but not “kempt.”

gailcalled's avatar

Christybeautifulgrosbeak: I never hear people say kempt, but I just found it in my Webster’s Collegiate. Kempt: (ME; combed) neat, tidy, well-groomed.

Off-topic: we have Eastern bluebirds wintering here…

christybird's avatar

Well, huh. Maybe I will start throwing that one around: “You’re looking quite kempt today.”

Also off-topic in response to earlier off-topic: I love bluebirds! Some of my fellow graduate students have done research projects on them. Their nests are much easier to find than blue grosbeaks: you just put out a nesting box and voila! They have a nice song too, a little querulous warble…

bob's avatar

I’m unkempt today, but this is a great question.

These terms are really interesting. “Feck” and “hap” are both words too, of course. In these cases the -less versions were useful and stuck around, but the original versions of the words were replaced. “Feck” was (apparently) originally a variant of “effect.” Someone who’s feckless is lacking in effect.

So there are two things going on: the original word becomes archaic and for some reason one of the variants sticks around, while the other variant(s) never existed in widespread usage (or, I suppose, disappeared or were replaced). It’s not that we don’t need a word for “feckful”; it’s just that we use other words for that purpose. Maybe those words (like “lucky” for hapful) are older or more useful than the alternatives.

According to this source (search for feckful), “Feckful” did exist, once, but it was never widely accepted.

Why don’t these logical variants exist? Mostly, I think, because languages evolve by hap. You could examine particular words and form conjectures about why one variant caught on, but there’s no hard and fast reason.

hossman's avatar

I am quite fond of using “kempt” as well as a similar word “couth” (we may use “uncouth,” but seldom do we use “couth”). I wish more would use them, so my use would appear more like common usage and less like pretentiousness.

gailcalled's avatar

Altho I am (almost) afraid to mention this w. Hoss and Kevbo who lurk in the wings and wait to pounce, “feck” has been used often as a way of getting around using that other 4-letter work that begins w f., has a vowel and then ends in ck.

I always associate “hapless” w. the unlucky Mr. Toad. Such a nice combination of words.

occ's avatar

Gail, your question reminded me of a fabulous piece that appeared in The New Yorker in the 90s. I found it online, and am copying it for your reading pleasure:

From, SHOUTS & MURMURS, THE NEW YORKER, JULY 25, 1994

How I Met My Wife

It had been a rough day, so when I walked into the party I was very chalant, despite my efforts to appear gruntled and consolate. I was furling my wieldy umbrella for the coat check when I saw her standing alone in a corner. She was a descript person, a woman in a state of total array. Her hair was kempt, her clothing shevelled, and she moved in a gainly way. I wanted desperately to meet her, but I knew I’d have to make bones about it, since I was travelling cognito. Beknownst to me, the hostess, whom I could see both hide and hair of, was very proper, so it would be skin off my nose if anything bad happened. And even though I had only swerving loyalty to her, my manners couldn’t be peccable. Only toward and heard-of behavior would do. Fortunately, the embarrassment that my maculate appearance might cause was evitable. There were two ways about it, but the chances that someone as flappable as I would be ept enough to become persona grata or sung hero were slim. I was, after all, something to sneeze at, someone you could easily hold a candle to, someone who usually aroused bridled passion. So I decided not to rush it. But then, all at once, for some apparent reason, she looked in my direction and smiled in a way that I could make heads or tails of. So, after a terminable delay, I acted with mitigated gall and made my way through the ruly crowd with strong givings. Nevertheless, since this was all new hat to me and I had no time to prepare a promptu speech, I was petuous. She responded well, and I was mayed that she considered me a savory char- acter who was up to some good. She told me who she was. “What a perfect nomer,” I said, advertently. The conversation became more and more choate, and we spoke at length to much avail. But I was defatigable, so I had to leave at a godly hour. I asked if she wanted to come with me. To my delight, she was committal. We left the party together and have been together ever since. I have given her my love, and she has requited it.

christybird's avatar

I think my favorite part of this is the “bridled passion.”

gailcalled's avatar

Really funny. Thank you. It minds me of some of the routines Victor Borge used to do.
Member how he would advance the number hidden a word? Viz; “I apprecinine, befive.anytwo, ineleventionally.)

Is it OK to wander so far off-topic, or are folks fended?

LexWordsmith's avatar

answering the original Q: That’s English fer ya.
Why can i like doing something, and like to do it, and enjoy doing it, but not enjoy to do it?

and, yes, in this kind of interchange, it’s completely in keeping to wander so far off
“topic”, and i’ll be happy to join you at any point in any random walk. They’ll say, “Gail called, and Lex came a-runnin’.”

LexWordsmith's avatar

@christybird : “kempt” is an archaic and obsolete relative of “combed”, i speculate.

LexWordsmith's avatar

if my spouse left me, i might be ruthless, but, being male, i could never be ruthful.

She and i were taking fox-trot lessons, and the instructor kept emphasizing the importance of “frame” (correct dancing position), but, for music, the instructor used Dancing Cheek to Cheek and, still worse, I’ve Got You under My Skin, both of which seemed to me to be introducing a counterproductive subliminal message.

LexWordsmith's avatar

i had no idea that “requite” was considered to have passed out of usage.

cybersharque's avatar

Ruth is from Old English “ruath,” meaning “mercy.” Hence ruthless is merciless. And sez who that requited is archaic? methinks not.

myles325's avatar

There’s a good article on unpaired words in Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unpaired_word
which gives a list of tem. Mostly, they are words which DID have an antonym once, but it never took on, or it faded into obscurity. For example, there is a “domitable” for indomitable, a “trepid” for intrepid, a “gainly” for ungainly, and many others. Some like “gruntled” never had an original “gruntled”. That’s because in this case, the prefix “dis” has the rare meaning of very or double; so disgruntled originally meant “very grumbly” The humorous writer Wodehouse coined “gruntled” in 1938 as a joke.

The short story presented above is an example of how joky antonyms can be invented. The process is known as conscious back-formation. Underwhelm as an opposite to overwhelm is an example of jocular back-formation.

libraryguy1's avatar

occ, I am whelmed by that New Yorker article, absolutely whelmed.

libraryguy1's avatar

myles325, after reading that article, I am combobulated. Thanks.

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