In Innocents Abroad (1869) Mark Twain wrote:
On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand,
And cast a wistful eye
To Canaan’s fair and happy land,
Where my possessions lie.
And in The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) Oscar Wilde wrote:
I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky.
Wistful is an evocative word which means ‘Expectantly or yearningly eager; mournfully expectant or longing.’ This is the current sense, and the sense both authors intended. It originally meant closely attentive, and there is still a trace of that meaning in its current sense: it could have been the principal sense intended in the quote from Mark Twain. It is thought to come from wistly, meaning intently, but was influenced by wishful, which plausibly accounts for its currently accepted meaning.
Wistful conveys its subtle meaning well, as this poignant passage from The Phoenix by DH Lawrence shows:
“The very first copy of The White Peacock that was ever sent out, I put into my mother’s hands when she was dying. She looked at the outside, and then at the title-page, and then at me, with darkening eyes. And though she loved me so much, I think she doubted whether it could be much of a book, since no one more important than I had written it. Somewhere, in the helpless privacies of her being, she had wistful respect for me. But for me in the face of the world, not much.”
Wistful is one of almost 1400 words which end with the suffix –ful. The word so formed may be a noun (cupful, handful, mouthful, roomful etc) and generally signifies a quantity of something. Alternatively the word created may be an adjective signifying full of … or characterised by… the thing to which the suffix is added. So, cheerful, doubtful, faithful and hopeful all suggest that the subject is filled with cheer, doubt, faith or hope. Lawful, restful, sinful and youthful suggest that the subject is characterised by or associated with law, rest, sin or youth. (Incidentally, the spelling with a single l at the end of each word is accepted by the OED).
The suffix –ful has a counterpart suffix: –less. Almost half of the words ending with –ful have corresponding words ending with –less. Not surprisingly, –less generally signifies lacking. So careless, flavourless and purposeless denote lack of care, flavour and purpose.
Although many –ful words have corresponding –less words, they do not necessarily have opposite meanings, although they may do. So, the following pairs are familiar opposites: careful-careless; colourful-colourless; fearful-fearless; graceful-graceless; harmful-harmless; meaningful-meaningless; powerful-powerless; shameful-shameless; tactful-tactless; thoughtful-thoughtless.
On the other hand, the following pairs are recognisable and in common use, but they are by no means opposites: armful-armless; eyeful-eyeless; gutful-gutless; handful-handless; helpful-helpless; roomful-roomless; skinful-skinless.
Many –ful words which survive in regular use have –less equivalents which are now obsolete. Why one should survive and the other not is one of the many mysteries of our language. We use awful frequently. Its equivalent awless, meaning ‘without dread, fearless’, has not been used since the late 19th century.
Bashful has a perfectly useful twin: bashless – meaning ‘unabashed, shameless, unblushing’ – but it has not been used since Elizabethan times.
It is not difficult to see why boastless, fanciless, grateless, mistrustless, regretless, resentless and successless have faded away, because they are difficult to say and probably not useful (but not altogether useless), while their counterparts boastful, fanciful, grateful, mistrustful, regretful, resentful and successful continue to flourish.
And wistful also has its opposite: wistless, but it has not been seen in print since 1814. That was in Cary’s translation of Dante’s Paradise:
“One, moiling, lay tangled in net of sensual delight;
And one to wistless indolence resigned”.
So used, it seems perfectly apt. In 1795 Southey wrote, in Joan of Arc,
“I held it, and, wistless what I did,
half from the sheath drew the well-temper’d blade”.
In both, the sense is of carelessness or inattention, and so appears to be the counterpart of the earlier meaning of wist. Incidentally, wist is itself a backformation from wistly (‘attentively, intently’). Nevertheless, wistful has survived, but Iand wistless has not. It is the more surprising because wistlessness is common. Think: driver with one hand on the wheel and the other holding a mobile phone, talking or texting as he drives through an intersection. Think: shop assistant slowly finishing a personal call as the queue of irritated customers lengthens… Wistless is a good word and a useful one.
Similar in sound and sense, but opposite in fortunes, is listless: ‘Characterized by unwillingness to move, act, or make any exertion; marked by languid indifference as to what goes on’. Its counterpart clearly has a useful place, but listful does not survive. It means ‘attentive or willing to listen’.
While useful words like wistless and listful exist but are not used, other examples of the form exist which, to be brutally frank, are just a waste of space. How many people need words like fiftyless (‘not 50 years old’), frounceless (‘without a frounce’), lichless (‘without a dead body’), or – and this is fair dinkum – Rolls-Royceless (‘devoid of Rolls-Royces’)?
And from the –ful side of the ledger, who needs: batful (‘fertile in pasture’), behoveful (‘necessary’), blindful (‘blind’) or breithful (‘violent, wrathful’).
In the wonderful wasteful ways of English, these many words have been conjured into being and, for want of use or beauty they have faded away. They disappear because they are fizenless (‘wanting substance, strength’), or because trying to remember them is beswinkful (‘toilsome’).
[A version of this essay also appears in my book about words: Wordwatching (Scribe, 2004, 2006]