(Part 1 of a series on sharing thoughts on words and their meanings.)

I happened to be thinking recently of the English term “ne’er-do-well,” and how I like the old-fashioned word “ne’er.” Wondering how I would translate it into French, I thought of “bon à rien,” which corresponds to “good-for-nothing.” This got me thinking: is a “ne’er-do-well” really the same as a “good-for-nothing”? They’re listed as synonyms in Merriam-Webster (with two centuries between them: the first attestation of good-for-nothing is 1533, while ne’er-do-well’s is 1736). But is one of them harsher than the other?

My parents once knew a house painter named Jim who was highly unreliable and an alcoholic. It took him 3 or 4 months to paint the shutters and trim on my dad’s house because most days he just didn’t show up. I think I’d call him a ne’er-do-well, but I might hesitate to refer to him as a good-for-nothing. After all, he might be generous with his cigarettes, or know a lot about baseball — most people are good for at least something. I guess I’m thinking that to be a good-for-nothing, you’d really have to fail everyone in your life in a pretty spectacular way. But to be a ne’er-do-well you’d just never amount to anything, without being deemed a total failure as a person. Or maybe this is just splitting hairs and there’s no difference between the two. What do you think?


Image via Openclipart.