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What makes Christmas merry? Previous Post: What makes Christmas merry? A brief history of yuletide adjectives

Plain unlucky! From hapless hunters to unfortunate accidents

Dog Shoots Man: … Man Recovering from Gunshot Wound Caused by Pet … The hapless hunter was setting up decoys in the water when the mishap occurred.

The above Huffington Post story caught my eye for two reasons: after I’d stopped smiling at the image of a dog shooting his master in the posterior (no worries, the guy doesn’t appear to be seriously injured), I also liked the apt and nicely alliterative description, ‘hapless hunter’. A quick Net surf revealed that journalists and bloggers around the world seem to delight in this adjective, though it’s not a word that you hear much in daily conversation.

‘Hapless’ means ‘unlucky’ and my trusty thesaurus informed me that the nearest synonyms for hapless are unlucky and unfortunate. These words can all refer to people who are plagued by accidental and unwelcome events, but they’re used in different ways and occur in different contexts. ‘Aha, I feel another close synonyms piece taking shape,’ thought I! Let’s tease out the distinctions between these adjectives (and incidentally find out what the dickens ‘hap’ is and why that hunter was lacking in it…).

Where’s that hap when you need it?

Not to be confused with ‘hap’ as seen in the slang phrase ‘What’s the haps?’ (meaning ‘What’s happening?’), the hap in ‘hapless’ is an archaic word meaning ‘luck or good fortune’. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that ‘hap’ was first recorded in around 1275, and it comes from Old Norse.

Although we no longer encounter ‘hap’ itself in current English, it lives on today by virtue of being a source of words that we use all the time:

So, to be hapless is to be lacking in good luck, in other words, unlucky. However, a comparison of  ‘hapless’ with ‘unlucky’ on the two-billion word Oxford English Corpus (OEC) reveals that the two words aren’t used in the same way. ‘Hapless’ has a narrower range of meaning and fewer examples (6,864) than ‘unlucky’ and ‘unfortunate’. It’s typically used to describe people who have bad luck (rather than events caused by misfortune). As mentioned, you rarely hear it in day-to-day conversation, but it features strongly in current affairs and sports reporting, and blogs:

One press car careered into a hapless motorist whose car was left wrecked in the middle of the road.

But it was the following season with the hapless Knicks that would decide his future.

Given that the original source of  ‘hapless’  in the archaic word for ‘luck’ is now hidden in the dim and distant past, and the fact that ‘hapless’ sounds and looks like hopeless and helpless, it’s perhaps not surprising that it’s often used almost interchangeably with both terms, and sometimes these adjectives occur together. Many examples seem to imply that a hapless person is responsible for what has happened to them, because of their own clumsiness, incompetence, or weakness, rather than their situation being a result of chance. This can lead to mild amusement (as in our original ‘hapless hunter’ example), exasperation, or derision on the part of the speaker:

He took over a hapless and hopeless party that was heading for political oblivion.

…he’s not the helpless, hapless sap of a typical slapstick comedy.

However, with other connotations of ‘helplessness’ and ‘hopelessness’ coming into play, hapless people may attract sympathy because they are regarded as being unable to escape from their predicament:

The hapless victims of these crimes were themselves unable to report or even suggest the identities of aggressors.

We wuz unlucky!

The milk of human kindness certainly isn’t in short supply for those described as ‘unlucky’ in the OEC. There’s an implicit acceptance that sheer bad luck is the main cause of a person’s situation and that they aren’t to blame for it:

Examination of insurance claims made by unlucky travellers shows that a quarter are the result of trips, slips, and plain old falling over.

She is also unlucky in love and has staggered from one broken relationship to the next.

We also see ‘unlucky’ used to describe situations that happen because of bad luck:

What happened in your life was an unlucky coincidence.

The OEC shows that ‘unlucky’ is much more common than ‘hapless’, with 10,347 occurrences, and that it appears in a wider spread of sources, from fiction and business to news and blogs. You’re also much more likely to hear it in spoken English (especially by sports fans to excuse a defeat even though their team or a player performed valiantly):

Ireland … played brilliantly and were desperately unlucky not to beat Spain.

‘Unlucky’ has another meaning, too – ‘causing or bringing bad luck’. It’s often used to describe days or numbers that are superstitiously believed to be  unlucky, Friday 13th being top of the list of dates when sufferers from triskaidekaphobia just burrow under the duvet rather than go out and risk incurring some terrible misfortune.

When Fortune wears a frown …

Fortuna was the Roman goddess of luck or chance. Her name lies at the root of our English word fortune and therefore also gave rise to fortunate, misfortune, and unfortunate. The latter has developed three meanings and comes out top of our trio of synonyms in terms of occurrences on the OEC, with an impressive 35,738 examples.

The main uses of ‘unfortunate’ are similar to ‘unlucky’ – it can mean ‘having bad luck’ and ‘caused by bad luck’. The evidence on the OEC shows that, as with ‘unlucky’, when we describe people as ‘unfortunate’, we recognize that the situation was beyond their control and we don’t blame those affected. ‘Unfortunate’ often appears with other adjectives expressing sympathy (‘tragic’, ‘poor’) as well as terms referring to pure chance or absence of personal responsibility, such as unforeseen, untimely, unintended, and accident:

We have just been trying to raise money for the poor unfortunate kids of our community.

Matt sustained a finger injury in an unfortunate accident.

What occurred was an unfortunate and unforeseen collision.

Regrets, I have a few…

The main difference between ‘unfortunate’ and ‘unlucky’ is that ‘unfortunate’ has developed the meaning ‘to be regretted, regrettable’. It typically features in the pattern ‘it is unfortunate that…’, which has around 4,500 instances on the OEC. In this sense, people often use ‘unfortunate’ when wishing to express blame or a critical opinion in a distanced and impersonal or way:

It is unfortunate that many of these hospitals do not have a specific policy vis-a-vis the environment.

[The council] said the officer had made an unfortunate mistake and offered its condolences to the man’s family.

Linked to this is the idea that something ‘unfortunate’ is so regrettable as to become embarrassing, inappropriate, or offensive:

He also once made some unfortunate remarks about Indian immigrants.

But enough of all this negativity, ‘tis the season to be jolly, so I’ll wish you all a happy holiday (and special wishes for a speedy recovery to the hapless hunter who launched me down this path).