In the early stages of the “crisis in Ukraine,” Arizona Senator John McCain used a word I’d not heard before. Or if I had, I’d forgotten it. The word was “feckless.” According to Senator McCain, Vladimir Putin’s take over of Crimea was “the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy where nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.”
After his remarks in the press I looked up feckless in a number of different dictionaries. It means, variously, “weak ineffective, feeble, incompetent, futile.” Secondary definitions include, “having no sense of responsibility, indifferent; lazy; worthless; irresponsible.”
Those with only a rudimentary knowledge of the language know that there are many English words that employ the suffix “less” – 649 to be exact according to a quick Google search. Many are familiar and frequently used: ageless, brainless, toothless, careless, clueless, ruthless, topless, pointless, worthless, speechless, to name but a few. Others are not so familiar and rarely come up in everyday conversation. Wartless, for instance, or terpeneless. (Terpene by the way, for those few who might be interested, is a type of hydrocarbon).
The point is, most of the time we can look at a given word ending in “less” and break it down rather easily. Toothless for example suggests a lack of teeth; wartless a lack of warts. Reasoning by analogy then we can conclude that in Senator McCain’s opinion at least, American foreign policy lacks…
What the heck is feck?
The other words I’ve cited stand alone absent their suffix: age, brain, and point for instance. The severed words are familiar to us and have definitions of their own. Add “less” to them and you know exactly what the new word means. But feck? Well, that’s not quite as easy. Because the actual word “feck”, according to at least one online dictionary that I rely on regularly, is obsolete. (As a side note, something called The Urban Dictionary and another lesser source called the World English Dictionary define it as a variation of a similar word that cannot be reprinted here.)