'Neerdowell' is a word I last heard used by my Grandfather easily 30 years ago. At the time, he was approaching 100 years of age and, along with his equally aged wife, was a veritable gold mine of linguistic archaisms. The word refers to someone who is
'a rogue, vagrant or vagabond without means of support; a good-for-nothing louse.'
It may have originated with a play titled The Ne'er-do-Weel, an 1878 piece by W. S. Gilbert, of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. The Poetes Maudits of fin-de-siecle France were among its avatars: Rimbaud, Mallarme, Baudelaire (although he was earlier in the century) round out this Rogue's Gallery of accomplishment. The Poetes Maudits, in turn, were the descendants of Romantic era artists such as Blake whose prodigious output belied his deviant status. Their cinematic descendants produced a stream of European films from the 70s through the 90s that explored the social, cultural and economic origins of adolescent female failure: notably Alain Tanner's Le Salamandre and Agnes Varda's brilliant film The Vagabond to name just two.
In the early 20th century the Lost Generation of ex-pat Americans such as Hemingway, Stein and Miller are exemplars. In the US, this territory has been most deeply explored by artists, musicians and writers such as Jackson Pollack, the Beats, Lou Reed, Richard Hell and their epigones.
Would Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg have been thought of as ‘neerdowells’ by some of their peers, that is until they made their first billion dollars? Today's Millennials must have a similar pantheon of miscreants known only to them.
Clearly, the word has its provenance in the zeitgeist of every era and generation but, nevertheless, has passed out of common usage. The synonyms of 'neerdowell' include: failure, bum, schnorrer, guttersnipe, deviant, freeloader, mooch, miscreant, and so on, but 'neerdowell' retains its uniquely stigmatising pall of lapsed potential relative to social norms.
While the question of why 'neerdowell' is no longer verbal coin of the realm is a good one, for me the more interesting question concerns the conventions and usages that have replaced it. This is particularly true since we all know people who fit the bill, celebrities among them -- adolescents, adults, males, females, whatever. And it may be that the rise of monetizing celebrity culture is a key reason for its eclipse, particularly the culture of notoriety beginning with works like Capote's In Cold Blood and extending to the flagrantly contemptible narcissism of Lindsay Lohan.
What are the leading contenders and memes that have replaced 'neerdowell' in the vernacular?