Someone gormless is wanting in both spirit and sense, among other things.

“Don’t just stand there looking gormless, for heaven’s sake!”

The gormless one is probably standing uselessly even though it is plain that the speaker is doing something — moving furniture, say — that needs help. He may have a gaping mouth and a vacant expression.

A gormless person is especially incapable of doing anything that requires initiative. “I’m not surprised he still hasn’t got a job — he’s too gormless.” Or the word might be used to signify a lack of tact, describing someone who, say, made a series of poor jokes about squabbling couples, forgetting that they were speaking to someone in the process of going through a messy divorce.

In short, to call someone gormless is to say that they are as useless as it is possible to be in every way imaginable. In spite of this it has a mild, almost friendly flavor. It more suggests sorrow than anger on the part of the speaker.

The word dates from the 18th century and has either Scottish or Germanic roots. “Gaumless” is the older spelling.

The modern form reflects the fact that in most English accents the letter “r” is not pronounced at the end of a syllable, so “gorm” is just a variant of “gaum” with the same pronunciation, and at some point displaced the older spelling.

Mark Wainwright is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. Got a question about something you’ve seen or heard around the United Kingdom? E-mail us at:

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