When I feel a bit down I take some solace in singing to myself the following verse from one of Traffic’s better numbers, “Sometimes I feel so uninspired/ sometimes I feel like giving up/ sometimes I feel so very tired/ sometimes I feel like I’ve had enough”. This description of torpor and dissatisfaction seems to me to encapsulate the sense of one of the most interesting words in the English language, lackadaisical, a word we use adjectively to convey the sense of being listless, languid, lazy and lacking interest.
In tracing the etymology of this word, the best starting point is the exclamation of sorrow, regret or dismay, alack, which is itself probably a compound of ah, an exclamatory word, and lack which in some dialects meant failure, fault, reproach or shame. Alack survives to this day in phrases such as alas and alack but in medieval times was more likely to be found in association with day with either a definite or indefinite article. So a distressed person around the 15th or 16th centuries may have been overheard muttering “alack the day” or “alack a day”, cursing in a non- blasphemous way the way the day has gone and, perhaps, wishing he had never got out of bed. Shakespeare used it to this effect in Romeo and Juliet, “she’s dead, deceast, she’s dead, alacke the day!”
The phrase then suffered an attack of aphesis, the grammarian’s term for describing the process whereby an unaccented vowel at the start of a word drops off. This process was clearly underway in 1685 when John Eachard was writing his The Grounds and Occasions of the Contempt of the Clergy and Religion. “A-lack a day. How easie a matter is it for old folks to dote and slaver.. ” The hyphenating of the opening vowel shows the separation in process, although not complete.
By 1748 when the phrase appears in Tobias Smollett’s The adventures of Roderick Random, the aphesis had been completed and the component day had morphed into daisy. “Good lack-a-daisy! The rogue is fled!” Adjectivally it first appeared in Lawrence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, published in 1768, “would to heaven…thou hadst passed by, and beheld me sitting in my black coat, and in my lack-a-day-sical manner”. The sense is one of languor and, perhaps, the posture would be accompanied by sighs, groans and imprecations.
The Oxford English Dictionary defined it as “resembling one who is given to crying Lackaday! Full of vapid feeling or sentiment; affectedly languishing. Said of persons, their behaviour, manners and utterances”. It would seem, then, that this rather unusual, compound word, which is almost Teutonic in its construction, has developed the sense of laziness and carelessness in more recent times and rather left its original sense far behind. Perhaps we are guilty of being lackadaisical in our usage.