Q&A: “Shameless” vs “shameful”

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, shame on you…

Q: Hi AWC, can we talk about “shameless”?

A: Oh, do you mean that US comedy series starring William H Macy?

Q: I do not.

A: What a shame…

Q: I’d like to know how you can call something or someone “shameless” and it can somehow mean the same thing as “shameful”? Words like that usually mean opposite things – like “harmless” and “harmful”…

A: Yeah, English likes to keep us on our toes from time to time.

Q: English knows no shame!

A: Or in this case, it appears to know quite a few. The word “shame” was around in Old English way back in the 13th century, originally “scamu”.

Q: Oh, so is the word “scam” related to it then?

A: No. “Scam” in fact wasn’t seen until 1963 – likely influenced by 18th and 19th century “scamp”, meaning a cheater or robber.

Q: Fair enough.

A: However, from that original Old English “scamu” we got the original spelling of “scamless” and “scamful”. And both words initially related to modesty.

Q: Modesty?

A: That’s right. The first variant of shameful/scamful actually meant “modest”. While shameless/scamless meant “immodest” – a meaning that endures today.

Q: So they did start out as opposites?

A: They did. However, by the 1400s, “shameful” ditched the idea of modesty and went “all in” on being synonymous with “disgraceful” or causing shame.

Q: Territory that “shameless” was already covering?

A: Sort of. There are some differences between the two – in particular, it’s about who feels the shame.

Q: William H Macy?

A: No, not him. “Shame” itself is a tricky concept – kind of a deeper feeling of “guilt”. Shame is seeing ourselves as a bad person. If you do something bad, you might feel shame.

Q: Okay.

A: “Shameful” is typically used to describe actions that are bad and cause shame. For example: “Her comments about the boss were shameful”.

Q: Ooooh juicy gossip! What did she say about the boss?

A: That’s not important. The main point is that they were bad.

Q: I wonder if HR will get involved…

A: It’s just an example! Anyway, “shameless” is where things get interesting.

Q: Because of William H Macy?

A: No, not because of him. You see, society expects us to feel shame for doing something bad. And that’s why a lack of shame is viewed in a similar way to feeling it. For example: “It was a shameless disregard for company policy”.

Q: Oh, now I just NEED to know what she did.

A: Focus.

Q: Okay sure. But wouldn’t “shameful disregard for policy” work equally?

A: It could, but note the carelessness is absent in that version. As we said, it’s all about owning the shame. Who is more dangerous? A criminal that feels shame or one that does not?

Q: It’s a trick question – they’re both dangerous!

A: Okay true. But that’s where the subtle difference in usage is important. “Shameful” shows off how bad something is, while “shameless” is about refusing to feel bad.

Q: Same same but different.

A: Yeah. And it’s why there is a similar tone in the phrases “have you no shame?” and “shame on you!” The outrage of someone feeling no shame (“shameless”) is viewed as similar to something described as “shameful”.

Q: What about someone who was “filled with shame”?

A: That’s where the sense of guilt and remorse comes back into it. In that case, the adjective you’d want is “ashamed”.

Q: Any other fun facts?

A: Actually, yes. The word “shend” was once synonymous with shame and disgrace – it came from Old English “scand”. While “shend” has long since died out, its word origin gave us “scandal”.

Q: Oh, do you mean the US political thriller series starring William H Macy?

A: No. And he actually isn’t in that series.

Q: That’s a crying shame. Such an underrated actor.

A: The H stands for Hall.

Q: Well let’s wrap up this hall of shame with a recap. “Shameful” and “shameless” may be opposites yet both share negative connotations thanks to society. 

A: Or as Steve from Shameless would say, “90% of this world’s problems are caused by little words that come in pairs”…

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