Language Corner

When less ‘less’ is more

November 2, 2015
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A couple of years ago, we wrote about words with negative prefixes that form words without positive counterparts, such as “discombobulate.” Now, let’s talk about some words that don’t seem to exist without their negative suffixes.

Take, for example “feckless.” It means “weak; ineffective,” or “careless; irresponsible,” Webster’s New World College Dictionary says. A Boston Globe editorial said recently that Jeb Bush, “polling in single digits, will continue to make feckless campaign appearances.” But no one would ever say that Ben Carson “is making feck campaign appearances.”

Unless the person were Scottish: It turns out that “feck” is a Scottish variation of “effect.” As a noun, it means either the majority of something or the value and worth of something. It first showed up in the late 16th century, the Oxford English Dictionary says, and it now has a connotation of being irresponsible rather than merely ineffective.

You won’t find it in many dictionaries, and you won’t find it in most publications, either. Without “less,” “feck” might as well not exist, except as a mispronunciation of that other word.

“Shiftless” is another one. While most dictionaries and thesauruses list it as a synonym of “feckless,” it has a slightly darker meaning, often used to refer to laziness or dishonesty more than simply ineptness. You never hear anyone saying that “she’s really got shift.” Without “less,” “shift” becomes merely a specified time spent at a job, or a dress. “Shiftless” came to English about the same time as “feckless,” the OED says, but with a more obscure meeting: “Helpless for self-defence; void of cunning or artifice.”

Today, we would be more likely to say that someone without artifice was “guileless.” The OED defines “guileless” as “Devoid of guile.” (Don’t you hate dictionary definitions that don’t tell you what words mean?) Other dictionaries define it as “innocent” or “naïve.” Unlike our other friends, though, its suffix-less form does exist, frequently used to mean “deceit,” “cunning,” or other evil-sounding intentions.

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Of course, many other “less” suffixes merely turn one word into its opposite. People can be “spineless” or “have spine”; they can be “hopeless” or have “hope.”

Note that the “less” suffix turns a noun into an adjective. To turn it back into a noun, you have to add another suffix, often “ness”: “fecklessness,” “shiftlessness,” and “guilelessness.” It would probably suffice to ditch that suffix and come up with another word. Sometimes, less “less” is more.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.