Heads up: strong language ahead.
Comedian Samantha Bee sparked controversy this week when she called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” for her political complicity. The obscene remark, which Bee has since apologized for, had some wryly observing: why is everyone up in arms over feckless?
I think feckless and cunt are due for the etymological treatment.
Etymologically, feckless is “effect-less.” The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) attests the word in 1586 in Scottish dialect for “valueless, futile, or feeble,” later evolving to “lacking vigor or character” or “irresponsible.” Many sources credit Scotland’s Thomas Carlyle for popularizing the term.
Older yet is feckful, evidenced in the 1560s for “powerful” or “effective”—and a form we’ve sadly lost.
Best we know, the feck in feckless is shortened from effect. Clipping off an unstressed initial syllable is called aphesis, something we do in everyday speech all the time, e.g., ‘member for remember or ‘bout for about.
Also from Scottish English, feck is recorded first as the feck, or “the bulk,” in the 1480s, then as just feck for “value, efficacy, or energy” in the 1490s. This has no relation to the Irish feck, a minced oath for fuck, as Stan Carey explains and which Terrence Patrick Dolan’s Hiberno-English dictionary first records in 1989.
Effect, for its part, emerges in the late 14th century, borrowed from French, where it ultimately comes from the Latin efficere, “to bring about” (facere, “do,” plus ex, “out of”).
As for cunt, the word has a long and complicated history, and the intensity of the vulgarity isn’t evenly felt across the Englishes of the word, as profanologist Michael Adams discusses on Strong Language.
The OED observes that cunt is first found in place-names, such as Gropecuntelane in Oxfordshire (ca. 1230), referring to where the brothels were found. No, you just can’t make this stuff up, folks.
Referring to female genitals, the coarse force of cunt was in feck felt by 15th century, when the names for body parts were especially taboo, and rendered yet more offensive by the 19th century when the term totalized a woman, especially as a sexual object.
Cunt’s etymology is obscure. With cognates in the Germanic languages and remarkably similar to the Latin cunnus meaning the same, Anatoly Liberman suggests a nasalized form of kut, like cut. Others have proposed a connection to the Latin cuneus, “wedge,” and a variety of Proto-Indo-European roots meaning something “slashed” or “hollow.” I don’t think I need to parse any of these connections out for you.
For more on the history of cunt, see Green’s Dictionary of Slang. For more on its sociolinguistics, visit the Strong Language blog. And for more on feckless, see Nancy Friedman’s considerations from its political buzz in 2012.