Sunday 8 April 2018

-less is often more

I was on a bus a short while ago. A couple of kids behind me were playing an old word game: Have you ever been ____-less (supply a word in the space)? Have you ever been hairless? Have you ever been shirtless? And so on, to much giggling and a total absence of any answers. It took me back to my childhood, the days long before youngsters had their heads buried in electronic devices, to when I made up silly games with my siblings to pass the time on journeys long and short, till we got fed up with the game, stared out of the window for a while, and then started another one. But enough of pointless nostalgia.

As a teacher of English, I often find myself musing on some of the vagaries of our language, asking myself unusual questions which often lead off into quixotic pursuits in the strange and arcane regions of English grammar. I fell to thinking about the suffix -less, used to indicate the absence of a quality stated by a noun. Often, the negative suffix -less is paired with a positive suffix, either -y or -ful, or in some cases both (though there are also others, such as -ed). For example, something which is not useless can be said to be useful. Compare also thoughtless and thoughtful, hopeless and hopeful. Equally, something which is dustless is not dusty, guiltless – not guilty, luckless – not lucky, smokeless – not smoky. The meanings may not always be used in exactly opposite ways, but the point is that the opposites exist. Some words in -less even have the good fortune to have two opposites: cheerless cheerful/cheery; fruitless fruitful/fruity; tasteless tasteful/tasty.

So far, so normal. But then it occurred to me that there are some weird things that happen when you look closely at those -less words which don't have a ready-made opposite, or those words which do have a seemingly ready-made opposite which actually turns out not to be so. For instance, if you take the horn off a rhino, it will then be hornless. The question that is now manifesting itself in your head is whether a hornless rhino has ceased to be horny. Put it next to a rhino of the opposite sex and you'll soon find out. Similarly, can a baseless accusation be contrasted with a baseful, or indeed, basy accusation? Clearly, some -less words don't have a partner of the opposite persuasion, or, if they do, the partner is a rather strange one; the sort you'd soon suspect in the manner of “I Married a Monster From Outer Space”.

First of all, some, words like motionless, motiveless and nameless, don't have an opposite, most likely because the property in question is perceived to be present as a default position, and only noticeable in its absence. People and animals have a tendency to move a lot, so the state of being motionless arouses attention through its infrequency (apart, of course, from sleep). Crimes are generally assumed to have a motive, so a motiveless crime is significant simply because it is unusual. Similarly, someone or something that is nameless arouses our attention as we are so used to naming things, animals and people. When it comes to the absence of a person, we have words like motherless, childless and wifeless, which clearly indicate the absence of that particular person in someone's life. However, we would never think of people as being motherful, wifeful or childful if any of these relatives were present in their lives. I suppose that the same could be applied to godless, if that's an important concept for you.

When it comes to physical attributes, we have toothless, and its opposite, toothy, but not toothful. Manx cats are clearly tailless, though we would never think of tail-bearing cats as being taily, or even tailful. If you think about the absence of one's self, you could be conceived as being selfless, though that has a rather different meaning. However, if you're too full of yourself, you're termed as selfish, and not selfful – that could even be a new word, as could selfy; though, on second thoughts, maybe not. If you exist in an entirely non-corporeal form, you could be described as bodiless, as opposed to bodiful, though one thing I'd rather not contemplate in relation to the body is the idea of being bottomless (or indeed topless).

If we look at the absence of attire, we find the usual suspects such as bootless and shirtless, and even parts of attire, such as zipless. Clearly, if you wear boots, you aren't regarded as bootful, and with your shirt, you aren't shirtful, though if you're a punk rocker, you might be zipful. However, going down the other adjectival route doesn't get you very far in terms of the opposite meaning, as all you end up with is booty, shirty and zippy, who might have pretensions to being companions to a modern-day Snow-White.

Here are a few -less words which lack a good opposite; and they really got me thinking. If we aren't deathless, we must be deathful, so how come we don't die all the time? We now have driverless cars, but a car can't occupy the opposite state of being driverful, as there is no need to fill the car up with drivers. One will do, though you may have an unwanted one in the back seat. If you've been jobless, do you then become jobful, working 24 hours a day? You certainly don't want to be jobby (or even a jobbie). If your life is pointless, would becoming pointful turn you into a hedgehog? And what if you're feckless? Would you have any chance of becoming feckful, or even fecky, by getting more feck in your life?

I'll leave you with one final thought. We normally think of bees and wasps as having stings. However, there are certain species which don't have stings, and are hence stingless. What does that make a bee that never pays for its round in the pub? Stingy?