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Getting the "feck" out of "feckless"

Back in May, comedian and political commentator Samantha Bee used a pair of choice words to describe Ivanka Trump.

Soon after, a listener named D.C. wrote to us and asked us about one of those words: "What the heck is the story behind the word 'feckless'?"

Let's just say we're relieved D.C. didn't ask about the other word Bee used.

At best, "feckless" means weak. It can also mean incompetent, irresponsible or lacking energy or capacity. Originally, it was used to describe both things and people, but now it's used primarily to describe people.

When we first started thinking about this word, we thought it was one of those words like "discombobulated" that has a negative prefix but no corresponding positive word. You can be discombobulated, but you can't be combobulated.

Similarly, we assumed that someone can be feckless but not feckful. Turns out, that's not entirely true. You can find "feckful" in Merriam-Webster. However, we should note that it's chiefly a Scottish term, and not all dictionaries include it.

Another thing we didn't realize is that "feck" can be used on its own. The Oxford English Dictionary includes "feck" as a variant of "effect." If you think about "in effect" as meaning something is in force, it's not hard to see how "feck" could mean force.

"Feck" appears in the 1400s and means a couple of things. One meaning is the bulk of something or the greatest share. As a Scottish term, it still has that meaning -- you could say something like "it took the feck of a year."

Another meaning for "feck" is value. That's where we get "feckless" -- without value. "Feckful" and "feckless" both show up in English in the 16th century.

Professor Anne Curzan checked on usage for both of these words in the Corpus of Contemporary English and the Corpus of Global English. She found examples for "feckless" but none for "feckful."

We wonder if "feckful" falling out of favor has anything to do with the fact that "feck" is sometimes used as a euphemism for another four-letter word "F" word. People may have the sense that it's taboo, though that doesn't seem to be affecting "feckless."

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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