If I were to define the term "worthless," I would define it as "worth LESS" or "worth not a lot."

But the actual dictionary definition is something like "worth zero." That's even less than "worth less" or "worth-not-a-lot."

How did the term come by its actual connotation. Could "less" in this context be a play or derivative of the German "los?" (The German Wertlos has the same meaning as the English worthless.)

  • 26
    It's worth with a suffix, not a compound of worth and less. Sep 29, 2018 at 16:37
  • 27
    Worthless, senseless, ceaseless, careless, hopeless, thoughtless, pointless and so on, all bear the meaning 'being without the quality', idiomatically. I cannot think of one example which conveys the meaning 'being limited in said quality'. But it is an interesting point and the question provoked the answer below (leas meaning 'devoid') so I have up-voted both question and answer (+1).
    – Nigel J
    Sep 29, 2018 at 18:32
  • 6
    Tom, "-less" is a very common suffix. (Peerless, matchless, childless etc etc.) It has no connection at all to the word "less". It's incredibly commonplace in English that totally unrelated items have the same spelling.
    – Fattie
    Sep 30, 2018 at 16:43
  • 2
    a better question might be to ask how the suffix '-less' and the word 'less' came to have different meanings.
    – Spudley
    Oct 1, 2018 at 9:19

1 Answer 1


Your definition would be wrong. The suffix -less means:

1 (forming adjectives and adverbs from nouns) not having; free from.

2 (forming adjectives and adverbs from verbs) not affected by or not carrying out the action of the verb.

Old English -lēas, from lēas ‘devoid of’.

Note that the origin given for the word less is different.

  • 5
    It is also much used: countless, seamless. Though in countless it means so much. Funny, huh?
    – Lambie
    Sep 29, 2018 at 15:59
  • 10
    Countless conforms to the explanation given by michael.hor257k. It means a number not having a countable total, because it is so large that it has not been (or cannot be) counted. There are countless grains of sand on the beach. Sep 29, 2018 at 18:30
  • 3
    @MichaelHarvey I think Lambie is well aware of that and was just making a pun. Sep 29, 2018 at 19:55
  • 2
    The only thing I'd add is that, yes, it's totally a cognate with German "-los", which is also from Proto-Germanic lausaz
    – mattdm
    Sep 30, 2018 at 1:19
  • 1
    Exactly, @mattdm. I think it would be hard to find a Germanic language without the suffix.
    – Lubin
    Sep 30, 2018 at 18:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

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