Tag Archives: alack

lackadaisical

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.
Science News

The spelling is slightly different, but people were lackadaisical about such things in those days.
Analog

“It’s easy to get lackadaisical about these things, especially flying domestically. And we shouldn’t, ever.”
USA Today

To begin with, he was surprisingly lackadaisical about politics for someone who wants to reshape it.
National Review

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.

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.