“Gormless”

Friend of NOOBs Lucy Berrington alerted me to a piece posted yesterday in Slate’s women’s-issues blog, XX Factor. Writer Michelle Goldberg discussed how Susan Sarandon, in an MSNBC interview, “posited that a Trump presidency might be preferable to a Clinton one, because it would hasten the revolution. ‘Some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately if he gets in, things will really explode,’ she said.”

Goldberg excoriated Sarandon for–among many other things–“the gormless unreality of her idea of revolution.”

The OED defines “gormless” as “wanting sense, or discernment,” and dates it to 18th-century Lancashire dialect. There’s a citation from Wuthering Heights (1846): “Did I ever look so stupid, so ‘gaumless’, as Joseph calls it.” (Joseph being from Yorkshire, the next county over from Lancashire.)

This Google Ngram Viewer chart suggests that the word didn’t really become widely popular in the U.K. till the 20th century,:

Screen Shot 2016-03-30 at 10.00.09 AM

The low U.S. usage is reflected in the archives of the New York Times, where “gormless” has appeared a mere seventeen times. Many of them are quotations from people from Britain or Ireland, as in the earliest use, from a 1957 column by Drew Middleton: “They’re a poor, gormless [feckless] lot down there,” a Belfast building worker said over the bar at the Great Eastern pub.”  The eleven 21st-century uses tend to be from the mouths of the Times writers, as in the most recent one, a 2015 capsule movie review of “Escobar: Paradise Lost,” where  “Benicio Del Toro’s drug kingpin Pablo Escobar is elbowed aside by this fact-studded fiction’s near-ruinous focus on a gormless surfer played by the chronically inexpressive Josh Hutcherson.”

I expect to see more U.S. uses of “gormless,” as the amount of gormlessness in the world appears to be on the rise.

 

13 responses to ““Gormless”

  1. I think P.G. Wodehouse described Bertie Wooster as a young gentleman with a distinctive blend of airy nonchalance and refined gormlessness in “Jeeves & Wooster”

  2. My grandmother was a northerner and used it all the time.

  3. I think there was a comedian in the 1960’s or 70’s who used the word a lot and it became popular in southern England at that time.

  4. Gormless usually indicates harmless ignorance, while feckless suggests that the individual knows what the consequences are, but carries on regardless.

    Well, that’s what it means in Australian English!

    • Thank you! It’s the same in UK English. Also it has overtones of lacking foresight and not giving a thought for the morrow. (And that has just reminded me of the cows’ names in Cold Comfort farm: Graceless, Aimless, Feckless, and Pointless. There could easily have be one called Gormless, but for the fact that the eponymous farm was in Sussex, not Yorkshire.)

  5. No, no, no! The word gormless should never be spoken with an American accent, it just won’t sound right.🙂

  6. I don’t recall ever calling anyone gormless, but do refer to people looking gormless or having a gormless expression on their face. Slack jawed seems American to me, but a gormless expression summons up the same impression.

    Incidentally, is there a word for words like gormless? It clearly implies an absence of gorm, but gorm itself isn’t a word. Are there many other examples?

  7. troubleshooter

    Are you aware of this British web page from Macmillan Education?

    Differences in American and British English grammar

    http://www.onestopenglish.com/grammar/grammar-reference/american-english-vs-british-english/differences-in-american-and-british-english-grammar-article/152820.article

  8. I use gormless occasionally here in Australia – as in “gormless twit” or “gormless moron” … usually in traffic or at the shopping centre. I use it to describe a general mouth breather who is not really aware of any impact they might be having on others (e.g. having a conversation with their partner in the supermarket while taking up aisle space and forcing those behind them to have to wait to get past, and when pointed out to them, they seem clueless as to the problem they’ve caused or how they’ve caused it).
    Futher, I’d agree with some other commenters that “feckless” refers to “one who gives no fecks” – in others words, yes, they know the consequences of what they’re doing but don’t care and do it anyway.

  9. Headed to the UK for graduate school- excited to see how speech patterns vary. A visit to Australia a year ago revealed more differences than I had originally assumed. I had a friend tell me yesterday that my regular use of the word horrid is atypical for americans, but I think that may be just unusual in the midwest.

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