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A reader has called my attention to a surge in the use of the word feckless in the American press. A Web search garners 1,550,000 hits.

Feckless derives from feck, a dialect word possibly formed by a linguistic process called aphaeresis: “omission of one or more sounds or letters from the beginning of a word.”

Examples of aphaeresis include: squire from esquire and coon from raccoon. Feck, which is documented as early as the 14th century, is probably a shortening of the noun effect. Feck is “energy and gumption.” A person with feck gets things done.

When used to refer to a thing, the adjective feckless means, “valueless, futile, or feeble.”

Used to refer to a person or a person’s actions, feckless means, “lacking energy; weak, helpless.”

In modern usage, feckless is used chiefly as a synonym for irresponsible or shiftless. This latter use of feckless is especially common in the British press in headlines and articles relating to social welfare programs:

Britain’s most feckless father? Unemployed dad of 10 is expecting FOUR more children –The Telegraph.

Let’s get the feckless to buy food – not fags and booze –MailOnline.

No one would consider her [a young unmarried mother of four children, by two different men, and expecting her fifth] to be anything other than feckless and irresponsible. –The Independent.

The Oxfam report – “Walking The Breadline,” published in June this year, states that half a million people in the UK rely on food banks. Yet the Government puts their fingers in their ears, blaming feckless parenting and scroungers. –The Guardian.

Here are some examples in contexts other than discussions of welfare recipients:

Given their feckless track record, would you really trust Apple with (even more of) your digital life? –Source uncertain; the comment appears on numerous sites.

One striking feature in all three works is how badly the men do; how feckless they are, how treacherous, weepy, self-obsessed and violent. –Review of a collection of three short stories by Bernhard Schlink.

Because the usual use of feckless is to describe people or actions lacking in will or responsible purpose, some of the examples I found left me a bit puzzled:

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Here are some sure fire home remedies and tips to get rid of your feckless and lifeless hair.

The opposite of fecklessfeckful (powerful, effective, efficient, vigorous)–is used seriously in an OED citation dated 1568:

I culd nocht cum…without sum gret and fecfull purpois.
[I could not come…without some great and feckful purpose.]

Anyone using the positive adjective feckful nowadays would be aiming for humorous effect, as in this 1990 quotation from The New York Times:

The unfailingly feckless Bertie Wooster and his valet, the formidably feckful Jeeves.

Sometimes feckless is the perfect choice, but sometimes not. Here is a selection of words that might serve better in some contexts:


David Auburn, playwright and contributor to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, says this about feckless:

The obscene-sounding first syllable gives punch and an air of harsh condemnation to the synonym for irresponsible, conveying “not merely irresponsible but also unforgivably blithe, and in one’s blitheness, causing great harm.”

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