Criticism grows of feckless politicians who use 'feckless' fecklessly

Politicians increasingly like the word 'feckless,' because it sounds arch and smart. But Sen. John McCain – a man of undoubted feck – is the clear king. 

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP
Sen. John McCain dearly wants a less feckless foreign policy.

Feckless: A common pejorative political synonym for weak, often to sneer at what’s seen as an insufficiently muscular foreign policy.

Feckless has found a comfortable home in our insult-driven political environment. The fact that it sounds so much like “reckless” undoubtedly has a lot to do with that.

During the Dec. 15 Republican presidential debate, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie drew the red-meat applause that he sought by blasting President Obama as a “feckless weakling.” Miriam-Webster.com reported that online dictionary lookups rose for the former following Governor Christie’s remark.

“People appear to have a fairly good idea of the meaning of the word weakling, but feckless is more obscure,” the dictionary said, adding that “feckless” has been around since the end of the 16th century and means lacking feck, a Scotch word connoting worth or value.

Meanwhile, the insult – which has been common on conservative websites ever since Mr. Obama took office – has popped up elsewhere. The Washington Post’s editorial board took Obama sharply to task for what it called the president’s lackluster response to Iran’s provocations since it struck the historic nuclear weapons deal with the United States and other countries this summer, including two missile tests as well as refusing to release long-detained Post reporter Jason Rezaian.

“It’s not hard to guess the reasons for this fecklessness,” the Post said. “President Obama is reluctant to do anything that might derail the nuclear deal before Iran carries out its commitments, including uninstalling thousands of centrifuges and diluting or removing tons of enriched uranium.” That led Guy Benson, political editor for the conservative website Townhall.com to run a piece headlined “WaPo Editorial: Iran is Exploiting Obama's 'Feckless' Foreign Policy.”

In turn, Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost used the word to poke fun at Christie over his own political troubles. On a recent “Weekend Update,” Mr. Jost said sarcastically: “Whoa, someone got a dictionary for Christmas. I had to look that one up. ‘Feckless: inept or irresponsible.’ Let’s see it used in a sentence: ‘It would be a feckless attempt at revenge to close three lanes of a bridge in New Jersey.’”

The Sunlight Foundation’s peerless CapitolWords.org shows that the usage of “feckless” has risen over the past year and a half. The member of Congress who’s fondest of the word? By far it is Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain (R ) of Arizona, who along with his close friend Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is the chamber’s most ardent hawk. Senator McCain has used it in connection with his old 2008 opponent’s approach toward Russia, Syria and just in general when it comes to dealing with other nations.

Chuck McCutcheon writes his "Speaking Politics" blog exclusively for Politics Voices.

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