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When I look up hapless in the dictionary,¹ the definition is basically "unfortunate" (hap from Old Norse for good luck, -less from Old English leas meaning "without").

That's fine as a very basic definition, but as a native speaker, to me hapless carries a connotation of being a bit helpless about one's lack of luck, a bit ineffective. So not just unlucky, but also failing to be proactive doing anything about it.

Is it just me? Or is this connotation well-established in literature, etc.?


¹ Collins * Merriam-Webster * Dictionary.com

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    Perhaps you are blending 'hapless' and 'helpless' because of the closeness of the words. I think that is a natural thing to do. I could see how one might combine the two in his/her mind. – Naomi Apr 28 at 12:50
  • @Naomi - I don't think that's the case here. – T.J. Crowder Apr 28 at 13:15
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Vocabulary.com makes the following usage example in which hapless actually has a wider connotation than unlucky:

Use the adjective hapless to describe someone unlucky and deserving of pity, like the hapless car buyer who gives in to the fast-talking salesperson.

  • A traveler who goes to Moscow and briefly gets lost on the subway? Just a tourist. A traveler who goes to Moscow, accidentally eats food he is allergic to, somehow loses all his money, and by chance gets on a train destined for Mongolia? Definitely hapless

From: Matthew Bernstein; The Fix Is In; Wild West (Leesburg, Virginia); Jun 2020.

“Sticking his gun into the patrolman’s abdomen, Chuck once more pulled the trigger, and again the gun didn’t fire. By then O’Sullivan had joined the fray, and the officers arrested the hapless gunman.” Matthew Bernstein; The Fix Is In; Wild West (Leesburg, Virginia); Jun 2020.

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  • Thanks. They do seem to be trying to say something there, whether it's similar to what I'm thinking of or not. And yet...when would someone who's unlucky (in general) not be deserving of pity? :-) – T.J. Crowder Apr 28 at 10:12
  • @T.J.Crowder When they're a thief that just got caught robbing a bank, or a killer killed for their crime – Naomi Apr 28 at 12:51
  • @Naomi - Okay, fair enough. :-) – T.J. Crowder Apr 28 at 13:15

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