Know your English: Helpless or hapless in our pursuit to master English?

Representational image.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphotos

What is the difference between ‘hapless’ and ‘helpless’? (S Krishnan, Chennai)

The ‘a’ in ‘hapless’ sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘cat’, ‘bat’ and ‘sat’; the word comes from the Old Norse ‘happ’ which meant ‘good luck’ or ‘fortune’. A ‘hapless’ person, therefore, is someone who doesn’t have much of either; he is someone who experiences misfortune most of the time. He is a luckless individual who does not get the breaks he deserves. One usually feels sorry or pity for such an individual for many of the unfortunate things that happen to him are not always his fault. By the way, the word ‘happy’ is related to ‘happ’. ‘The hapless victims of the flood went without food for several days.’During dinner, he gave a detailed account of his constipation problem to his hapless guests.’ When you refer to someone as being ‘helpless’, what you are suggesting is that the individual is defenceless – should danger come his way, he will not know what to do, and will be unable to protect himself. A baby is usually helpless; someone has to take care of it. Even adults can be helpless at times; they may not know what to do in a given situation. ‘When I see all this poverty around me, I feel completely helpless.’ ‘When I saw the eagle swoop down and take the kitten, I felt helpless and depressed.’

Is it correct to say, ‘I was scared, and was constantly looking over my shoulders’? (Brijesh, Mysore)

No, it is not. People generally talk about looking over one’s ‘shoulder’ and not ‘shoulders’. Makes sense, I suppose; it is very difficult to look over both the right and the left shoulder at the same time. You can look over one, but not both simultaneously. The idiom ‘look over one’s shoulder’ is mostly used in informal contexts. When do we keep looking over our shoulder? When we are extremely anxious or nervous about something; when we have the feeling that someone may be following us and that we may be in some sort of danger - that something unpleasant is going to happen. ‘Raj sensed he was being followed. But being a detective, he never once looked over his shoulder.’ ‘Whenever I walk these streets after dark, I keep looking over my shoulder.’

How is the word ‘vase’ pronounced? (CV Karthik, Kanchipuram)

There are two very different ways of pronouncing the word; which one you choose to use depends on which side of the Atlantic you are from. The British tend to pronounce the first vowel like the ‘ar’ in ‘art’, ‘part’ and ‘dart’, and the final ‘se’ like the ‘z’ in ‘zip’, ‘zoo’ and ‘zero’. They pronounce the word ‘VAAZ’. The Americans, on the other hand, rhyme the word with ‘face’, ‘race’ and ‘case’ – the final ‘se’ sounds like the ‘s’ in ‘sip’ and ‘sit’. A container usually used to hold cut flowers is referred to as a vase. ‘Dilip presented the couple an expensive vase on their anniversary.’Some of the vases in this museum are priceless.’

“Trust is like a vase…once it’s broken, though you can fix it, the vase will never be the same again.”

-Walter Anderson

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jan 27, 2022 12:21:24 AM |

Next Story