1

'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?

  • Your conjecture about the origin of the term ne'er-do-well appears to be flawed. Also your spelling. – Robusto Jun 7 '15 at 11:40
  • 3
    Well, for me "ne'er-do-well" is not yet dead, I might use it, though with its apostrophe and hyphens, as one word it looks funny to me. As regards what you call cognates but are actually synonyms, I don't think half of them actually are. "Bum" is probably the closest, and the "rogue" you mention. For the retrospective you might also look at one of the oldest of them all, Villon and even older, the "Archpoet" of the 12th century. – David Pugh Jun 7 '15 at 11:41
  • 1
    You have used a large number of words in search of a fairly well understood expression. – WS2 Jun 7 '15 at 12:13
  • @Robusto While one could object to your choice of the word flawed, it is not the last word in provenance as David Pugh notes. Thanks to David for his correction of both flawed etymologies. As for the spelling, your version appears to be preferred. Thanks for the nitpicking. – DJohnson Jun 7 '15 at 12:14
  • 1
    @JohnLawler Great elucidating reference to Nunberg's book. Thanks. – DJohnson Jun 7 '15 at 18:18
7

A close cousin to the ne'er-do-well is the good-for-nothing. He is still up and about.

  • Silly me, I meant to provide this to the OP, but got sidetracked by Villon. Upvote. You remind me of the Yinglish term, nogoodnik. – David Pugh Jun 7 '15 at 12:18
  • Where are the ne'er-do-wells of yesteryear? – TRomano Jun 7 '15 at 12:23
  • "Where are the ne'er-do-wells of yesteryear?" In rehab for selfie-stick addiction? – David Pugh Jun 7 '15 at 12:31
  • An ancient ne'er-do-well was trying to use his cane as a makeshift selfie-stick, to snap-chat images of himself feeding the pigeons breadcrumbs laced with arsenic. – TRomano Jun 7 '15 at 12:48
3

Your thesis is flawed. Ne'er do well is doing about as well as it always has, save for a "bump" in the 1920s and 1930s.

While there certainly are other terms, there is no need find a "replacement" for a term which is still alive and kicking.

0

In the US, the common replacement for ne'er-do-well is "loser".

In fact, the symbol for "loser" - making an "L" shape with one's thumb and forefinger, and holding it to one's forehead - is widely recognized.

  • Hmm, to me "loser" (ie: slacker) seems wholly different from n'er-do-well. Maybe I've had the wrong idea about N.D.W. all this time. – Fattie Jun 7 '15 at 16:47
  • @JoeBlow - It may be somewhat different at times, but at others, it it wholly synonymous. "Who is that well-dressed, successful-looking man?" "His mother buys those clothes for him - he lives in her basement... When he needs some cash, he puts down the video games and slings weed on the corner... HE'S A LOSER." – Oldbag Jun 7 '15 at 17:56
  • i dont really see it. "losers" are not (even) the "successful drug dealer type". losers are, very simply, beavis and buttheads. just total nothings - "hippy" types, if you will. Anyway. – Fattie Jun 8 '15 at 3:40
  • @JoeBlow I never thought I should ever hear Beavis and Butthead referred to as hippies, of all things. – Aeon Akechi Jul 23 '16 at 21:31

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.