By my desk, I have a page-a-day calendar. In my email I get a few word-a-day emails (in several different languages, since of course I know all the words in English 😛 ). And on Twitter, I get my lack-a-day: what’s gone missing now? Ah well, so it goes.
Not to be lackadaisical about it, but yeah. When you see a lack, and you lament it, you can say “Ah, lack!” as you might say “Ah, loss!” to a loss. Or, to go with alas for a loss, you say alack for a lack. That’s where it comes from.
But it has grown past that. Once it became a one-word exclamation, it was also available to swap in for woe or pity, or, of course, alas. You could say “woe to the day” or “pity the day” or “alas for the day,” but you could also say – like Juliet’s nurse in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet – “Alack the day!” Or, if you’re not lamenting a specific day, you can say, like many people in literature and life since, “Alack a day!”
Or even just lack-a-day. Or, perhaps to match phrases such as ups-a-daisy, you can say lack-a-daisy, like a character named Betty in Tobias Smollett’s 1748 novel Roderick Random:
With these words she advanced to the bed, in which he lay, and, finding the sheets cold, exclaimed, “Good lackadaisy! The rogue is fled.”
And from all of that came the somewhat whimsical adjective lackadaisical, first seen spelled lack-a-day-sical by Laurence Sterne in his 1768 Sentimental Journey:
Would to heaven! my dear Eugenius, thou hadst passed by, and beheld me sitting in my black coat, and in my lack-a-day-sical manner, counting the throbs of it, one by one, with as much true devotion as if I had been watching the critical ebb or flow of her fever.
Now, lackadaisical doesn’t express a whimsical mood, or at least it’s not supposed to refer to one. And yet there’s something more whimsical, quizzical, even nonsensical, and perhaps musical, than physical or dropsical about it. Or just… slack, lax, and lazy, but with more syllables. Maybe even happy-go-lucky. It sounds like a string burbled by a chickadee looking on a daisy.
And so we see it used often to mean more ‘careless’ than ‘despondent’, more Pooh than Eeyore. Here are some quotes from the Corpus of Contemporary American English, with publication sources cited (they don’t give the article and author):
So, the theory goes, pollinators that drink spiked nectar get lackadaisical about grooming and careen around in a disheveled state delivering unusually large amounts of pollen.
The spelling is slightly different, but people were lackadaisical about such things in those days.
“It’s easy to get lackadaisical about these things, especially flying domestically. And we shouldn’t, ever.”
To begin with, he was surprisingly lackadaisical about politics for someone who wants to reshape it.
The Oxford English Dictionary defines lackadaisical as “Resembling one who is given to crying ‘Lackaday!’; full of vapid feeling or sentiment; affectedly languishing.” That seems a bit strong for the above, doesn’t it? Merriam-Webster (m-w.com) gives “lacking life, spirit, or zest : languid.” But even that is a bit strong for most current instances. ‘Unmotivated’ or ‘unconcerned’ would be more to the point.
It’s as though English speakers just haven’t had the… whatsits… to maintain the original strength of meaning for this word. Not so much that they’re filled with woe and utterly demotivated, or even that they’re making a point of fecklessness, as that it just… doesn’t seem important to them to do so. The word has a more common and suitable use based on what it, you know, sounds like. Not much good old Lackaday! but lots of modern lackadaisical.