Wake me when it’s over
Dear Word Detective: Where does the word “lackadaisical” come from? — Joe.
Ah, a short question, but one that opens a window into a world of weirdness. That’s what I love about the English language — every word bears the fingerprints of our ancestors, many of whom were seriously strange. The poet John Ciardi used to say that our words are miniature fossilized poems written by the human race, which is true, but sometimes they seem more like miniature fossilized psychiatric case reports.
Today we use “lackadaisical” to mean “lacking interest, energy or initiative; lacking spirit.” A person with a “lackadaisical” attitude is apathetic and uninterested in much of anything, and a lackadaisical employee usually produces shoddy and substandard work. In fact, a lackadaisical approach to anything rarely results in the desired outcome, as US Senator Fred Thompson recently proved in his famously torpid and now-defunct run for the Republican presidential nomination. According to the New York Daily News, “Thompson’s candidacy was widely ridiculed by party professionals for its lackadaisical quality. ‘How are you supposed to tell?’ one of them remarked yesterday after Thompson’s exit.”
Given the laid-back attitude of the truly “lackadaisical,” it’s a bit surprising that the word itself arose as a exclamation of agitated anguish, which would seem to require at least a smidgen of adrenaline to produce. Back in the 16th century, if you were faced with an alarming reversal or personal disaster, you were more than likely to express your distress with a cry of “Alack the day!” or “Alack a day!” (meaning “curse this day” or “woe this day”). Shakespeare used the phrase in Romeo & Juliet to announce Juliet’s demise (“Shee’s dead, deceast, shee’s dead: alacke the day!”). This “alack” is the same found in the phrase “alas and alack,” and comes from an old use of “lack” to mean “failure or shame.”
By the 17th century, the expression had been clipped to “lack-a-day,” and by the 18th, it had mutated, oddly, to “lackadaisy.” During this evolution, however, its connotation shifted from a serious expression of grief to a fatalistic lament, more apathetic and self-pitying than agonized, and roughly synonymous with “what the heck” or “that’s the way it goes.” Naturally, persons given to expressing what was considered such “vapid sentimentality” at every opportunity (and doing little else) were called “lackadaisical.”