The Grammarphobia Blog

How shameless can shameful be?

Q: In news reports on Jan. 30, 2009, it was variously reported that President Obama called the awarding of bonuses on Wall Street “shameful” or “shameless.” So, what did he say, and what is the difference?

A: Mr. Obama used “shameful” on Jan. 29 in remarks from the White House, according to the Associated Press. Here’s the AP report:

“President Barack Obama issued a withering critique Thursday of Wall Street corporate behavior, calling it ‘the height of irresponsibility’ for employees to be paid more than $18 billion in bonuses last year while their crumbling financial sector received a bailout from taxpayers. ‘It is shameful,’ Obama said from the Oval Office.”

If he also used “shameless,” I’m not aware of it. But even if he did, that wouldn’t necessarily have been inappropriate.

While “shameful” and “shameless” are technically opposites (meaning full of shame vs. without shame), they aren’t mutually exclusive and sometimes convey much the same meaning.

A behavior – let’s say corporate greed – can be shameful (something to be ashamed of), and yet be carried out in a shameless manner (that is, with no shame). Unfortunately, this isn’t unusual!

On the other hand, not everything that’s shameless is shameful. For example, a little child who takes off his clothes and runs around naked does this shamelessly (with no sense of shame). Is this shameful? No.

The noun “shame,” which has Germanic origins, was first recorded in Old English around 725, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED defines it as “the painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances (or in those of others whose honour or disgrace one regards as one’s own), or of being in a situation which offends one’s sense of modesty or decency.”

As for the adjective “shameful,” its first meaning (from around the year 950) was “modest, shamefaced,” according to the OED. Later it came to mean full of shame or causing shame (disgraceful, scandalous, degrading, and so on).

The first meaning of the adjective “shameless,” circa 897, was “lacking shame, destitute of feelings of modesty; impudent, audacious, immodest; insensible to disgrace.” Later it came to mean “indicating or characterized by absence of shame or modesty,” whether used to describe an action or the person acting.

When Arthur Sanders Way translated The Odyssey in 1880, he put both words in the mouth of Homer’s hero. In a big banquet scene, Odysseus speaks of his “ravening belly” and says, “This shameful shameless thing, crieth on me to eat and to drink, / Bidding me fill it, and suffers me not of my troubles to think.”

In poking around the Internet, I see there’s a rock group called My Shameful that Wikipedia describes as “a doom/death metal band with Finnish, German and American members.” Now is that a shameless name or not?

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