13 ways to say ‘unlucky’
Friday 13th has long been considered an unlucky day in the West, at least by some people; this dates back to the Middle Ages. Though it’s often treated whimsically, a word for a phobia of the day has been suggested: paraskevidekatriaphobia, by analogy with the existing word for a phobia of the number 13, triskaidekaphobia.
Whether you scoff at superstition or will be spending the day avoiding cracks on the pavement, we thought we’d lend some variety to the day by looking at historical synonyms for the adjective unlucky. The word only dates to the 16th century, so there are a fair few older words you could use instead to lend a bit of gravitas to this purportedly inauspicious day.
Though fey is still used today to mean ‘giving an impression of vague unworldliness or mystery’, the adjective has a long, winding history. It’s earliest known uses relate to death, describing somebody who is fated to die or at the point of death. Unsurprisingly, this was considered pretty unlucky, and ‘unlucky’ is another sense of fey that dates to Old English. By association, in the 19th century this became ‘disordered in mind like one about to die; possessing or displaying magical, fairylike, or unearthly qualities’, which led to its current use.
Many synonyms for unlucky follow the pattern of negating prefix + word meaning lucky. Somebody unseely is unlucky – indeed, ‘unfortunate, unhappy, miserable, wretched’, as the OED defines it. Dating to Old English, it is the opposite of seely (‘happy, blissful; fortunate, lucky, well-omened, auspicious’) which eventually became the modern-day silly.
Similarly, you could also describe a person as unsele, an adjective driving from sele which was a noun meaning ‘happiness, prosperity, good fortune’. Sele could also be added to other words to designate a favourable or proper time for something, such as barley-sele being the season for sowing barley.
Also found in Old English, this obsolete adjective comes from the noun wanspeed (‘ill-success; adversity, poverty’) which, in turn, combines wan- (a prefix used to express negation, approximately equivalent to the modern un-) and speed, which, in its earliest uses, meant ‘abundance’. The only word prefixed with wan- which survives in current English is wanton, with the etymology of wan- + towen, the past participle of the obsolete tee, ‘to draw, pull, drag’.
You’ll be familiar with ungracious meaning ‘not polite or friendly’; it literally means ‘without grace’, and so the common contemporary definition applies to one definition of grace. In this instance, using another definition of grace, it can mean ‘without fortune or luck’.
While an unlucky person probably would feel quite unhappy (in the modern sense), this use dates back to the original sense of happy to mean ‘favoured by good fortune; lucky’, which is still seen in idioms like happy accident. You can read more about the word happy in our very happy blog post.
Maleurous is a borrowing from the Middle French maleureus or maleureux, from maleur meaning ‘ill fortune’. Now obsolete, maleurous was found at least into the mid-19th century, though its antonym beneurous (‘happy, blessed’) has only been found in translations by William Caxton, famed for being the first English printer.
Swap around some common prefixes and some common suffixes, and it doesn’t take the most hardened etymologist to see glimmers of unfortunate in the obsolete adjective infortunable.
The double negative was alive and well in the 15th century, it seems; mal-infortunated adds the mal- prefix, usually meaning ‘bad’ or reversing the sense of the word, to the existing word infortunated – which already meant ‘unlucky’.
To be unured is to be unfortunate; the noun it derives from, eure, was once used to mean ‘luck’ but also any destiny or fate, whether good or bad. This comes via French from the same Latin root that gives bonheur, ‘happiness’ – as well as malheur, misfortune, and maleured, ill-fortuned.
In Scottish English and English from the north of England, you might have heard unsonsy used to mean ‘unlucky’ – and, indeed, to mean ‘unhandsome, plain’. Sonsy, unsurprisingly, means ‘lucky’ or ‘bringing luck’, as well as ‘attractive’.
Mischancy originally meant ‘unlucky’, formed by derivation with mischance, and first found in the work of the poet and bishop Gavin Douglas (c1476-1522). You might still come across mischancy in Scottish and Irish English, although it is now usually used to mean ‘subject to chance or mischance; risky, dubious’ rather than ‘unlucky’.
Stiff has plenty of meanings, but if you hear the adjective in Australia or New Zealand, there’s a chance that it’s intended as a slang word meaning ‘unlucky’. Unlike most of the other words on this list, stiff is still in use with this sense –but you have to be in the right part of the world.