The Oxford English Dictionary tracks it back to the dialect form gaumless / gawm(b)less, where the "gaum" part means "heed, notice, understanding" and goes back to Old Norse gaum-r (masculine), gaum (feminine). From that, I assumed "gormless" must be an old word on the decline, but Google Books Ngram Viewer produced a surprise ...
|click to enlarge - gormless 1870-2000|
|click to enlarge - gormless,gaumless,gawmless 1870-2000|
Did I ever look so stupid: so "gaumless," as Joseph calls it?... the "gaumless" / "gawmless" forms appear from the early 19th century in a number of northern English regional dialect glossaries and the occasional work of regionally-set fiction (Google search on "gaumless" OR "gawmless").
I thought for a moment I'd beaten the OED's first citation (1883) for the form "gormless" - Google Books produced a handful of earlier hits. But I soon found that the majority of 19th century hits arose from a murk of amusing optical character recognition errors, mostly for "germless":
- ... Addison's daughter by the Gormless of Warwick ...
- ... they would not be able to sit out-of-doors and enjoy the free and comparatively gormless air as already described.
- ... pots and kettles, timeless clocks, and gormless seeds ...
- ... if I could get him to spend twelve months in the unexciting but gormless atmosphere of our cottage hospital ....
- On the production of Fungi in gormless spaces
- Haeckel distinguishes in these works, for the first time, between gormless protoplasm, consisting only of plastids called cytods by him ...
- Schwann therefore, in another set of experiments, allowed the boiled (and consequently gormless) infusions to communicate freely with the atmosphere.
- ... and so on.
By complete coincidence, this ties in with the current Language Log post by Mark Liberman, Ngram morality. When Google Ngram Viewer was launched - see Google Books N-gram - wow! - one of the aspects that was hyped was its potential for "culturomics": quantitative research into social trends as reflected in language: this was outlined in the paper Quantitative Analysis of Culture Using Millions of Digitized Books (Science, 14 January 2011: Vol. 331 no. 6014 pp. 176-182).
This is a powerful idea, when the results are interpreted with a lot of caution (I described previously - When pufh comef to fhove - how an apparently robust pre-Victorian era when it was OK to use the word "fuck" in print is entirely an artifact of the word "suck" being printed with a long-s as "ſuck").
But as Professor Liberman and others have discussed, there are those, often seeking confirmation for some world-view, who are ready to wade in with no such caution. One of the dubious forms of analysis is the completely simplistic conclusion that the frequency of a concept mentioned in print is a direct indicator of how that concept applies in society. By that line of argument, the steady rise of "gormless" over the past century means society has become more gormless over that time.
Ngram morality looks at a current op-ed column by the NY Times pundit David Brooks, who applies precisely the same reasoning, based on several like-minded papers, to conclude that society is going to the dogs, as evidenced by the rise and fall of certain words.
Martyn Cornell of Zythophile has offered in the comments a theory on the rise of "gormless".
It may or may not be a coincidence that the rise of "gormless" begins at about the same time as the rise of BBC radio: could it be because Northern English comedians were introducing the word to southerners, who took it up with enthusiasm? More research needed ...This looks a very good start. I don't have any evidence of his using it, but the comedy persona of the immensely popular George Formby was regularly described as "gormless".