Unusual Word of the Day: Gormless

We’ve left London and headed north, and are now guests of a Scot and an Orcadian. At breakfast today they used a word that is even odder to my ear than widdershins. They referred to the pigeons outside as “gormless”.

They say it means “stupid/brainless”. The word as used here also has the intriguing feature of being used only in the negative, i.e., No one speaks of “gorm” just “gormless”. This recalls P.G. Wodehouse describing a character as “If not disgruntled, neither was he entirely gruntled”.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

35 thoughts on “Unusual Word of the Day: Gormless”

  1. There is also “uncouth.” People sometimes do use “couth”, in an I’m-so-witty sense. That doesn’t count.

    Are there other candidates? Come on, SameFacters. We can do it!

      1. In Romance languages, where “disgust” comes from, the positive forms (gastar, gostar) are alive and well.

        Wiktionary gives “gormless” as deriving from English dialect gaum, understanding. So “gormful” is possible. Presumably Northern; of the four citations, two (Emily Bronte, Terry Pratchett) are Northerners, JK Rowling is Scots, and Roald Dahl Norwegian.

        The shortest French translation of “widdershins/counter-clockwise” is dans le sens contraire à celui des aiguilles d’une montre.

        1. In Romance languages, where “disgust” comes from, the positive forms (gastar, gostar) are alive and well.

          And in English too. “The meal was a gustatory delight. Afterwards, the musicians played with great gusto.”

          The shortest French translation of “widdershins/counter-clockwise” is dans le sens contraire à celui des aiguilles d’une montre.

          I once attended a conference on preparing software for use in foreign countries. One point that I recall being raised was that translations from English tended to be longer than the original, and this was important for formatting output. This was because English has many more words and thus offered shorter ways of expressing ideas. That sounds reasonable, I guess, but I wouldn’t bet my life on it.

          1. My impression is that translations period tend to be longer, unless the translator/editor puts particular effort into compression. Every language has idioms that other languages render in some clumsy fashion or other. (One favorite exercise of my childhood was trying to find an english word, or even short sequence of words, that captured the full meaning of unverschämt.)

            See also “sheveled”.

          2. My German is more than rusty, but doesn’t “shameless” do it, or perhaps “brazen?”

            Or am I on the wrong trail entirely?

          3. Both shameless and brazen should work as adequate translations of “unverschämt” in one sense. But it also has other meanings, such as outrageously high (when referring to a price). It can also be used colloquially as a form of praise (“unverschämt gut”), which is difficult to translate in a way that accurately captures the tone of the statement.

            Still, this can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Schadenfreude is still more tricky. Weltschmerz und Lebensgefährte are not easy to translate, either (“significant other” does not really have the same connotations as “Lebensgefährte”).

            That said, English typically is more compact, but I don’t think vocabulary size matters much, at least not directly. Both German and French have hundreds of thousands of words, and no native speaker is going to use more than a fraction of them. Of course, English has borrowed from more languages, so it often has more than one option to express a concept concisely.

            Word length, however, matters. As I recall, the average English word is one letter shorter than the average German word. That adds up over a sentence or paragraph.

            I suspect that part of the reason for more elaborate expressions in other languages is also that English has some aspects of a creolized language in that it is lacking in inflected forms, grammatical gender, suffixes, and a lot of other grammatical ornaments. As a result, you can construct more complex sentences in French and German without introducing ambiguities and native speakers make use of that — run-on sentences are not discouraged as much as they are in English, because there is less need. You’ll also notice that native and bilingual French/German speakers, such as myself, tend to sometimes carry that habit over into English.

          4. On second thought, “shamelessly good” would probably be a good translation of “unverschämt good”. Nevermind. 🙂

          5. And, while we are at it, do not forget that other, perfectly good English word, “weltanschauung”.

      1. Feckless and bootless are good. But if you can’t be ept, you can be apt.

      2. Ineffable?

        I know you can be affable, but I don’t see how the meanings are related.

  2. Phrases than individual words, so this probably doesn’t count, and I believe Wm. Safire got here first, but: I’m waiting for the day someone has the mitigated gall to disappear into thick air in narrow daylight.

  3. From Jack Winter’s “How I Met My Wife” (New Yorker, 1994:

    “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. …”

    Read the rest here: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1994/07/25/1994_07_25_082_TNY_CARDS_000367745

  4. I’ve only heard “gormless” used to mean “spineless; without gumption.” (‘Gump’ and ‘gorm’ same root, perhaps?) As for inept: though there’s no ept, there is adept as well as apt.

    1. For my taste, that’s not quite right. “Gormless” is roughly “clueless”. Romney is spineless, but as acute as an octopus.

      1. Romney is as cute as an octopus, maybe. But he doesn’t strike me as very acute. He is a rare thing: a man of undoubtedly sound intellect conjoined to real ability and an exaggerated work ethic–but utterly gormless. The trees, after all, are the right height. Corporations are people, my friend.

    1. Remember Swifties?

      “What our team needs is a guy who can hit sixty home runs a year,” said Tom, ruthlessly.

    2. The noun and adjective may be obsolete, but you may still rue the day they became so, unless you have a ruthless disregard for linguistic history.

  5. My family background is Lancashire, and “gormless” was used fairly regularly- often toward me, sad to say. “Clueless”,yes, but also lacking spirit or initiative.

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