Week thirty-eight: POETLESS (probability 18529), by David Sutton

In a posting some time ago back on world-scrabble, Albert Hahn commented on POETLESS as one of the oddest words he had met in Scrabble. I'm not sure I agree — it seems quite reasonable to say, for example, that Stratford-upon-Avon was poetless before Shakespeare came along, though it's probably untrue. But it set me thinking about -LESS words, and realising that the vocabulary of deprivation is really very extensive, with over a thousand examples.

Some are not entirely obvious in meaning: CHAPLESS, for example, does not refer to the condition of a spinster but means 'having no lower jaw' — Shakespeare in 'Romeo and Juliet' speaks of 'reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls'. BASHLESS does not refer to an exhausted pugilist, but means 'unashamed'. FINELESS does not refer to a clean motoring record, but means 'endless' — 'But riches fineless is as poor as winter/To him that ever fears he shall be poor' [Shakespeare: 'Othello']. SACKLESS does not mean 'without a sack', but 'innocent, guileless'. (It has variants SACLESS and SAIKLESS). But my favourite word of deprivation has to be TOADLESS, which does actually mean 'having no toads'. For some reason there is no FROGLESS*. I have no idea why the absence of one species of amphibian rather than another should merit lexicographical commemoration.


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