Daily Archives: August 2, 2010

lackadaisically

Oh, what to do on a lazy day? The air is hazy and slack, and you are dazed and sickly, and not merely from the blazing sun… You wish you had a daisy to pluck quizzically, but you lack even that. Alas! A lass! A lack! Alack! Oh, you shall surely evanesce…

The state described may make one think of various French films, but cross the channel and back up a century or two and you have a suitable sentiment for the lost languor and lazy or lonesome laments of one inclined to bemoan, as many an emotional invalid did.

Certainly from the later 1600s on for a pair of centuries those facing an unfortunate situation over which they lacked control or remedy could be heard – or read, anyway, in novels – to cry “Alack!” or “Alack the day!” or “Lack-a-day!” And one who was disposed to be so indisposed was lackadaisical, and to do things in the manner of one such was, basically, to do them lackadaisically. (For that matter, it still is, though we seldom say “alack” anymore.)

What is alack anyway? Why, a lack, which is to say ah, lack. Its origins are more direct than those of alas, which combines the ah kind of moan with a morpheme ultimately from Latin lassum, “wretched” or, originally, “weary”. Lack‘s meaning was originally broader: it covered “failure”, “fault”, and similar. So alack was a way to say “what a shame”. And alack the day meant “shame to the day” – you are ruing the day that this happened. As in the nurse’s exclamation in Romeo and Juliet: “She’s dead, deceased, she’s dead; alack the day!”

But one who is lackadaisical is not in a constant state of abject woe, really; the word is so sprawled out, as though languishing on a divan, slack, dazed, sickly, and the description at two removes – from the immediate cry, to a disposition to lament, to a resemblance of that disposition – that in its first appearances in the mid-1700s it was already used much as it is now, to describe a general blueness of mood and manner.

Quite something, though, that this long word, bouncing as it does between clicks and liquids with a central buzz on the s, should not signify something more energetic or at least luxuriant. It seems to have its hair on end with all the ascenders (though this longest version finally goes down the drain at the end, y). With its l and two l‘s perhaps it says “Hell, it’s gone to hell.” But with the four a‘s, two c‘s, and two i‘s, how ironic that it should refer to a state too emotionally etiolated to make a foray to see with one’s own two eyes.

Thanks to Margaret Gibbs for suggesting lackadaisically – that is, for suggesting the word, not making the suggestion thusly.