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shameless pleading

Ne’er-do-well

Feckless and gormless, oh my!

Dear Word Detective:  I have no idea if I’m even spelling this right, but I love the term “Nair do well.” I don’t know if it’s one, two, or three separate words. I grew up in a pretty tough neighborhood, and my father has been using it for as long as I can remember in reference to some of our neighbors. A few years ago, I asked him what it meant. He replied, “Someone who sits around all day and doesn’t work.” I started using the term “Nair do well” amongst colleagues, and no one has ever heard of it. Is it a real phrase or word, or is my old man full of it? — P.

Hmm. That’s a good question, but before we begin, we should clear things up a bit. The term you’re looking for is “ne’er-do-well,” with the “ne’er” being pronounced as you spelled it, “nair,” rhyming with “hair.”

Meanwhile, “Nair” (capitalized) is the brand name of a well-known depilatory, i.e., a hair removal product (“pilus” being the Latin word for “hair”). According to Wikipedia (caveat lector), modern depilatories use agents such as lime and lye to weaken the strands of hair, allowing them to be easily wiped away. Whee! Wikipedia suggests, quite reasonably, that the name “Nair” is a “portmanteau” (combined form) of “no” and “hair.”

None of that, of course, has anything to do with “ne’er-do-well,” although the relationship of virtue to hair is complex and fluid. In the 1960s, for instance, movie villains were frequently completely bald (think Ernst Blofeld in James Bond movies of the day) and male heroes usually sported either healthy heads of hair or pricey toupees. Today the villains are usually quite hirsute and heroes (e.g., Bruce Willis, The Rock) are largely or completely bald. Go figure. I’m sure there’s a doctoral thesis lurking in there somewhere.

A “ne’er-do-well” is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A good-for-nothing; a worthless, disreputable person,” which is certainly laying it on the line. “Ne’er-do-well” can also be used as an adjective meaning “Never doing any good; good-for-nothing, worthless.” The term entered English in the early 18th century from Scots, which is why it sounds so cool when you say it in a Willie the Groundskeeper voice.

It’s pretty clear that the average “ne’er-do-well” doesn’t “do well” in the sense of accomplishing anything useful, but that leaves the mystery of the “ne’er.” But that’s not really much of a mystery: “ne’er” is simply a colloquial contraction of “never,” once part of mainstream English but now found largely in regional speech and poetic uses where one dreamy syllable is preferable to two (“Those dogs that from him ne’er would rove.” 1829).

While “ne’er-do-well” was originally a seriously pejorative term for someone considered a bum, scoundrel or worse, in its diluted modern use it’s often applied to someone who has just unexpectedly but persistently deviated from a social norm. Thus the uncle who breezes into town every five years to borrow money or the nephew who flits from scheme to scheme while still living at home at age 35 might well be tagged as “ne’er-do-wells.”

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