I was feeling listless yesterday, and I started wondering about the origin of the word. My guess was that it was related to how a boat lists, meaning leaning off to the side, and I was thinking that it was connected to how a sailboat will lean to the side when under heavy wind and when it’s not leaning, it’s rarely moving.
But it turns out that this was wrong (and in more than one way). The list in listless is, in fact, “Old English lystan (verb), of Germanic origin, from a base meaning ‘pleasure’.” And this etymology, in fact, said something about my mood that I was only aware of in retrospect, and that my lack of energy was, in fact, a case of anhedonia, that is, a lack of pleasure.
But I said I was wrong in more than one way. It turns out that the other way I was wrong was in the nautical meaning of list. I had thought it was any tilt of a boat, but, in fact, it’s a tilt that occurs while the boat is at rest and is a result of uneven loading of the cargo (or, I suppose passengers), not some external force. So now I’ve learned two new things about words that turned out to be less familiar than I thought they were.