Listless vessels

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In an interview on Friday ("DeSantis plans to do what Trump couldn't | Full Interview with Will Witt", The Florida Standard 8/18/2023), Ron DeSantis referred to (some of?) Donald Trump's followers as "listless vessels":

The movement has got to be
about what are you trying to achieve on behalf of the American people
and that's got to be based in principle
uh because if you're not rooted in principle
uh if all we are is listless vessels that just supposed to follow
you know whatever happens to come down the pike on Truth Social every morning
that's- that's not going to be a durable movement

Needless to say, negative reactions have occurred. Some are listed in Andrew Zhang, "MAGA world lashes out over DeSantis’ ‘listless vessels’ remark", Politico 8/19/2023:

The Trump campaign and MAGA world on Saturday blasted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for remarks appearing to label some of the former president’s supporters “listless vessels.”

“DeSantis goes full-blown Hillary and call[s] MAGA supporters ‘Listless Vessels,’” Trump campaign spokesperson Steven Cheung wrote on X […]

“To Hillary Clinton, Trump supporters are ‘deplorables.’ To Ron DeSantis, they are ‘listless vessels.’ The truth is, Trump supporters are patriots,” MAGA, Inc. spokesperson Karoline Leavitt said in a statement.

But since this is Language Log, not Effects Of Political Insults Log, what's the linguistic angle?

The first point is that "listless vessel" seems to be a stock DeSantis phase. In an interview on Fox News immediately following his disastrous attempted campaign  launch on Twitter Spaces, DeSantis used the same phrase to describe Joe Biden ("Ron DeSantis: I'm running to lead a 'Great American Comeback'", Fox News 5/24/2023):

We see the federal government making it more difficult for families
to make ends meet and we have a president
who is a listless vessel
uh not energetic
and not dealing with the key challenges
that are facing our country
but it does not have to be this way

And back on June 2, David Weigel tweeted (X-ed?) about two other instances from Ron and Casey DeSantis:

In several other examples from recorded speeches, DeSantis uses the term "listless vessels" to describe students whose education has not filled them with what he considers the proper ideas about history and politics. Here's a link to a later (June 22) South Carolina Town Hall where he explains that

every single person we produce
is going to be a citizen of this Republic
and I think it's incumbent upon us
to make sure that when they're graduating
and going out in the real world they're not just listless vessels
that they actually have a foundation of knowledge
about the principles that have made this country unique

Here's a link to a LeadershipPA speech on April 3, 2023, where he puts the same message a bit differently:

we owe it to them to make sure these students are graduating with a foundation,
knowledge about what it means to be an American,
not just graduating listless vessels
uh who really have no idea of what they have in our country

And a link to DeSantis' speech at the National Conservatism Conference back in September 2022, where again the "listless vessels" are students who haven't been filled with the proper ideas:

… we have an obligation to produce people
who are going to to be able to discharge the duties of being an American citizen
and you don't do that
by graduating people who are listless vessels
you got to give them a proper foundation
so they can make sense of the world around them …

So the idea that uneducated or mis-educated students are "listless vessels" is clearly a standard trope for him. It's a plausible extension of his worldview to apply the term to Joe Biden — but characterizing Trump supporters as uneducated or mis-educated?

For Casey DeSantis, the phrase seems usually to describe politicians who don't do (what she considers to be) the right things, e.g. in this "Meet & Greet" from August 4  in Iowa:

but when you see people just the bloviating
and the constant I'm going to do this and I'm going to do that
and then they become listless vessels up in Washington
and they give you a million reasons why they couldn't do it

Google Books believes that the phrase can be also found in DeSantis' 2011 book "Dreams from Our Founding Fathers":

But all traces of that book, both digital and paper, have apparently been purged. So maybe or maybe not.

Anyhow, the second linguistic question is where Ron (and Casey) DeSantis got the phrase, and what it means to them. In the other examples that I can find online, the "listless vessel(s)" are boats. Thus here

Apart from an assortment of listless vessels and the wake of the sea there was no movement to be seen. No birds following ships for scraps, no activities on shore, no gantries, cranes or vehicles moving. Silence, except for the waves …

Or here:

It was hard to imagine they were of the gods, who, with their vacant, inscrutable faces, could influence the storm clouds painted at their back, tipping out the listless vessels in a stolid seas. The sails of the ships, the curved …

Or here, from the Northwestern Christian Advocate in 1897, where the "vessel" is a boat, but the context is a religious metaphor:

When the kedge is let go in a chosen place the crew may slowly warp their otherwise listless vessel to its chosen berth "within the vale," and be safe from tempest and wreck. Bishop Cranston's metaphor is defensible, correct and really forceful and beautiful to the minds of those "who go down to the sea in ships."

The metaphor is a dangerous rhetorical weapon, but it is safe and effective in expert hands.

And Ron DeSantis was in the U.S. Navy…

In this article published today on PolitiZoom, the author jokes for a while about ships, listing or otherwise, and then cites this X to the effect that it's a religious concept:

That idea makes sense, and there's plenty of discussion Out There about people being vessels to be filled by God. But I haven't found any use of the term listless to describe those human "vessels" who haven't yet been filled. And applying the "listless vessels" metaphor to people waiting to be filled by Donald Trump's "truths" seems to send things off in a direction that DeSantis presumably didn't intend.

Update — In the headline of a short 8/20/2023 National Review piece, Rich Lowry evokes (and perhaps exaggerates) the somewhat antique flavor of the DeSantis phrase: "‘Away, You Starvelling, You Elf-Skin, You Dried Neat’s-Tongue, Bull’s-Pizzle, You Stock-Fish, You Listless Vessel!’".


  1. David L said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 10:31 am

    I can understand the strategy of using insider talk such as this in the primaries, where it will presumably appeal to a certain target audience. But if DeSantis were to be the Republican candidate in the general election, such language would become more or less useless. Unless he and his advisers think that support from fundamentalists and their allies alone would be enough for a win. In which case I think they would be clueless vessels.

  2. LW said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 11:32 am

    "tweeted (X-ed?)"


  3. Coby said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 11:43 am

    From the first cited source I get an image of boats that are still and don't list to either port or starboard.

  4. Keith Ivey said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 12:02 pm

    "Listless vessels" can't be found in the Google Ngram Viewer.

  5. Dan Romer said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 12:19 pm

    I think these are vessels whose captains don't have any lists :)

  6. Benjamin said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 12:47 pm

    I, a non-fundie, have definitely been saying listless before all this and I can't find any independent evidence that listless (meaning apathetic, lacking energy or purpose) is particularly fundamentalist. I'm pretty sure it's a normal, somewhat rare, word, and people are reading too far into this because they want to make DeSantis seem more fundamentalist. Not sure about vessels, though.

  7. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 1:28 pm

    "But all traces of that book, both digital and paper, have apparently been purged" — try

  8. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 1:47 pm

    And I, who have no idea what a "fundie" is, would routinely use the word "listless" to describe a sick pet animal to my vet if said animal's behaviour could be characterized as an unwillingness to move, act, or make any exertion, or be marked by languid indifference as to what goes on around it.

  9. Rod Wiesinger said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 2:51 pm

    I'm familiar with the term 'listless' meaning apathetic, non-energetic. My parents used it but I hadn't thought about it for years.
    I'm not sure how it applies to an inanimate object like a vessel in the sense of a container.
    I COULD make the stretch to apply it to a becalmed vessel in the sense of a boat.

    I agree that Ron better should speak more plainly when he wants to get a point across to the general electorate.

  10. cameron said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 2:52 pm

    is it an eggcornish mutation of "lifeless vessels"? certainly not quite an eggcorn because the sense is mutated as well

  11. David Morris said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 3:36 pm

    I wrote a blog post about the comparative use/frequency of pairs of words with -ful and -less, starting with ruthless and (rare) ruthful. At least one dictionary has 'listful', but I don't immediately have time to investigate further. The dictionary says that the 'list' of 'listless' means 'to please; to like or desire, see lust'. We certainly have lustful, but less often lustless.

  12. Keith Ivey said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 3:44 pm

    Philip Taylor, I don't think anyone is claiming that "listless" is a rare word or a sign of fundamentalism. The oddness is the phrase "listless vessels", as well as perhaps the description of people as "vessels".

  13. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 3:55 pm

    Well, Keith, perhaps they are not. But Benjamin (see above) appeared to feel that they were, and I was supporting him in his assertion that "listless" is a normal word, and went further to suggest that it is not even rare, especially when describing someone or something that is "[manifesting] an unwillingness to move, act, or make any exertion, or [is] marked by languid indifference as to what goes on around".

  14. Philip Anderson said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 4:28 pm

    “Listless vessels” makes no sense to me, but nor does listless seem at all an appropriate description of Trump supporters.

  15. Paul Garrett said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 4:44 pm

    Years ago, c. 1960, there were TV ads promoting various (dubious) meds for people "feeling listless" :) Sadly, I don't remember the details. It was after the demise of Coca-Cola containing cocaine… Around the same time, "feeling out-of-sorts" on TV ads meant "constipated", though I did not understand that at the time. :)

  16. Carl said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 6:21 pm

    The King James Bible contrasts “vessels of wrath” vs “vessels of mercy”. I can buy that it’s a King James-ism, but listless suggests that the vessels are ships without wind, not pots that are depressed.

  17. FM said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 6:44 pm

    It's an unusual phrase, but I thought its meaning was clear when I first saw it: Trump supporters are not animated from within, but only by what is poured into them by Trump himself. But seeing him use it in totally different contexts is what makes it weird for me.

  18. BF said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 7:02 pm

    It seems obvious to me that it's a sort of malapropism and what he's trying to say is "rudderless vessels." I imagine the nautical sense of the verb list is rattling around in his brain in some way.

  19. Steve Morrison said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 8:14 pm

    Then there’s the old saying “woman is the weaker vessel,” which is from the Bible.

  20. Brett said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 8:36 pm

    To me, the phrasing seemed like a weird conflation of at least two motifs. There is the fundamentalist Christian language of humans as "vessels" for God's love or purpose, and more specifically women as "vessels" for gestating children. There is also the nautical sense of "list," of watercraft ("vessels") that are tilting—prototypically when they are damaged (maybe even dead in the water) and in danger of sinking. So in different contexts, "listing" and "listless" can each imply a lack of drive and movement, leading to a possible confusion between the two in whatever metaphor DeSantis is trying to construct.

  21. AntC said,

    August 20, 2023 @ 11:36 pm

    etymonline list v.4 archaic mid-12c goes on to suggest is the origin of both 'listless' "languid and unresponsive, slothful,"; and 'list(ing)' "to tilt, lean, incline to one side," especially of a ship, 1880.

    It doesn't suggest 'listless' is the contrary of the 'list(ing)' sense. If de Santis is trying to suggest Trump supporters are lacking in sense of direction ("rudderless"), I'm with Philip A in thinking the opposite is the case: they have too much sense of direction — the _wrong_ direction. _If_ they have a moral compass (I'm doubtful) it's totally banjaxed.

    @Brett There is the fundamentalist Christian language of humans as "vessels" for God's love or purpose, …

    Is that vessels in the sense of ships (that might list) or vessels in the sense of storage/cooking containers? 'hollow/empty vessels'

    What became of the idea the U.S. constitution defends freedom of religion? It's as if non-fundamentalists are not even invited to the election/not invited to the Republican nomination.

  22. James Wimberley said,

    August 21, 2023 @ 5:52 am

    "Vessel" here clearly means "boat" or "ship". A listing boat/ship, as with the Russian warship recently attacked by Ukrainian underwater drones in the harbour of Novorissisk, and a rudderless one, are both out of the captain's control in some significant way. De Santis just found and stuck them together in his magical malaprop cupboard.

  23. Stephen Goranson said,

    August 21, 2023 @ 7:54 am

    I am not familiar with Mr. De Santis' language, but my wild guess: a variation of "useless vessel" moved from a Jeremiah (jeremiad, 18: 1-10) pottery shop to the ship of state.

  24. Bloix said,

    August 21, 2023 @ 8:04 am

    To those who have decided to advise us that "listless vessel" makes no sense, or that it's a malaprop for "listing vessel," I urge you to bestir your fingers for a minute or two. A google search will provide you with a few dozen examples of "listless vessel" in various contexts. You'll do better if you include -DeSantis, -Trump in your search.

    The earliest use I've found is dated 1897, and the most recent are current, most of them using the phrase as a metaphor, some in religious writing but several in a sports context (a soccer team, for example), and some of them referring literally to a becalmed or otherwise motionless ship or boat. For some reason it turns up a lot in fan fiction.

    Here's the 1897 example, a Christian metaphor: "When the kedge is let go in a chosen place the crew may slowly warp their otherwise listless vessel to its chosen berth 'within the vale ,' and be safe…" Northwest Christian Advocate, 1897

    An example from 2017, in a sports context: "Whilst certainly a listless vessel for too many years, the history books and trophy cabinet do not lie. With the right management and the intent, this football club has limitless potential.", a blog about the English soccer club Aston Villa.

    And a literal use: "Many are the almost unbelievable tales told of the hardships experienced by the arctic whalers. There is the instance in which the crew of one vessel encountering another in the icefields was amazed to see that no helmsman stood at the wheel of the listless vessel." [The entire crew had frozen to death.] Whaling Masters, compiled by the Federal Writers Project, 1938.

  25. yandoodan said,

    August 21, 2023 @ 11:37 am

    If you google "vessel meaning," the very first entry will be "1. as ship or large boat." A "sailing vessel" is becalmed when it is left "… unable to move through lack of wind" (again the first Google entry). Becalmed ships aren't stationary, however; they are moving at random. DeSantis is using "listless" to mean just this sort of random, directionless movement, a metaphor for people whose life have no steering, like a becalmed ship. Even though our "first Google entry" principle shows "listless" as applying only to people, DeSantis is using it as metaphor, listless people as directionless as a becalmed boat. As Bloix points out above, this nautical use is not unique. Anyway, you might be surprised at how much native Floridians know about sailing boats, and might assume that you know too.

    Note that DeSantis is using this metaphor to describe lack of patriotism or lack of moral principles, not lack of MAGA or fundie. Or lack of spirit or energy ("… they become listless vessels up in Washington and they give you a million reasons why they couldn't do it.")

  26. Grover Jones said,

    August 21, 2023 @ 3:49 pm

    What's interesting is that the construction (at least the first one, the one drawing complaints) is in an "if" clause–so he's not even calling anyone a listless anything. He's making a rhetorical point. Not that most political commentators are bright enough to note the difference.

  27. AntC said,

    August 21, 2023 @ 4:55 pm

    Thank you @Bloix for those refs, but I'm still not seeing it. I quoted 'list' in the sense of lean of a vessel 1880. So not clear if a 1897 'listless' of a vessel refers to it not leaning, or it's the older 'unresponsive' sense.

    using the phrase as a metaphor, …, and some of them referring literally to a becalmed or otherwise motionless ship or boat.

    I think earlier discussion had already raised that possibility. And rejected it as not applying to Trump supporters (in their own belief). So likely they'd take it as an insult.

    @yandoodan Note that DeSantis is using this metaphor to describe lack of patriotism or lack of moral principles, not lack of MAGA or fundie.

    Trump supporters AFAICT believe themselves to be patriotic and strong on 'moral principles'. DeSantis might disagree with their interpretation of patriotism. but the accusation doesn't stick that they 'lack' it.

    @Grover the if-clause makes specific mention of Truth Social. So it's not a remote/counter-factual conditional; it's very clearly talking about people who follow Trump. (Casting aspersions on commentators seems to be sinking to DeSantis' and Trump's level.)

    Now an observer might point out Trump's inconsistencies and quixoticism — might even say he's 'rudderless'. But if DeSantis wants to criticise Trump, attacking supporters is just going to put their backs up and provide fodder to Trump.

  28. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 22, 2023 @ 12:09 am

    The "vessel" that comes out in the KJV as "vessels of wrath" is σκεῦος, which might be a "vessel" in the sense of a jar or piece of pottery, but is *not* a "vessel" in the "boat or ship" sense, although in the plural it can mean "goods" or "objects" more generally, and can mean "tackle" when applied to a boat/ship. More detail at FWIW a quick skim of the KJV did not reveal (although I may have overlooked something) any use of "vessel" in the ship/boat sense, although one online source says that sense has been current in English since the 14th century and that the "association between hollow utensils and boats appears in all languages." But "listless" only makes sense, IMHO, for the ship/boat sense* or a metaphorical extension (perhaps not a very clear one!) of that sense, not for the "container you store stuff in" sense.

    Some modern English translations have used "objects of [his] wrath," to say nothing of those who have paraphrased more loosely a la "people who are objects of of his anger" or "those on whom his anger falls."

    Etymological Fun Fact: the "list" in "listless" is the same one as the archaic verb seen in the KJV in "the wind bloweth where it listeth." Whether the non-archaic verb "list" that is used in reference to ships that are leaning to one side is related to that is (per one source) "uncertain."

    *Google "listless boat" and you will find literal uses in recent news stories, as well as extended/metaphorical senses.

  29. Peter Grubtal said,

    August 22, 2023 @ 2:22 am

    I don't know if the expression is current in the US (or anywhere nowadays, come to that), but I wonder if he wasn't subconsciously influenced by the old saw :"empty vessels make most noise".

  30. Yuval said,

    August 22, 2023 @ 7:50 am

    FWIW, both utterances of "principle" sound like 'princible' to me.

  31. CuConnacht said,

    August 22, 2023 @ 2:26 pm

    Somewhere in the background of "vessel" as a metaphor for "human being" must be 1 Peter 3:7. In the Authorized Version:

    Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.

    "The weaker vessel" for "woman" was once a commonplace.

  32. Aardvark Cheeselog said,

    August 22, 2023 @ 4:18 pm

    I vote for the Evangelical code phrase interpretation.

  33. Browns Revenge said,

    August 23, 2023 @ 12:02 pm

    None of the above. You came close, but not enough.
    There are three main key to get, exactly, what the listless vessel metaphor was pointing at,
    but you will never get it if a) you didn't serve in the US Navy, like DS did, or b) you didn't
    do anything, at pro level, in sailing, like partecipating in the America's cup, or the like.
    1st main key – it's a military maritime, navy, term only
    2nd main key – it's referring to ships/warships with sails
    3rd- the phrase can be found only in books, hundreds and hundreds of them, referring,
    only to ships/warships with sails.
    Listless vessel Meaning: ship stuck because of the lack of wind.
    The metaphor DS was aiming at:
    If you keep listening to a single voice to command where are you going, in this case
    Trump throught the Truth platform, be warned that commander can go down at any
    given moment and your ship, in the metaphor the GOP, can become a "listless vessel",
    a ship with no goal, no purpose, nowhere to go.
    Instead if your crew is leaded by strong principles your ship will always have wind and
    you, in the methapor the GOP, are ready to go wherever you want.
    Because many of the books containing the phrase "listless vessel" are, nowadays,
    available only in the US Naval Academy Library, Annapolis, my guess is DS read that
    phrase in one of those books, mainly in the book "The Travelers' tree" a must read
    for every US NAVY cadet, and it stuck with his mind, because with two words only
    you can express a far deep concept.

  34. Browns Revenge said,

    August 23, 2023 @ 2:01 pm

    yandoodan was right since the very beginning but like all the media and the politicians
    he never served in the US Navy and therefore he missed to fill some dots.
    1st one military/maritime/navy only phrase
    2nd one referred only to ship with sails while, nowadays, no ship or warship has
    3rd one yandoodan never had access the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, so he
    couldn't check the hundreds of sailors' books in there referring to "listless
    I will add a 4th key of interpretation for the ones who never served in any US military
    branch is impossible to understand that while you are in there you will learn many
    gergal terms which will stick with you for the rest of your life, even if you don't want to.

  35. Browns Revenge said,

    August 23, 2023 @ 2:07 pm

    You didn't get it. It wasn't referred to a lack or patriotismo or the like
    It was referred to go after a single voice, the captain's one, without
    ever taking into account that captain can go down at any given moment,
    in the metaphor Trump, indicted, jailed, it doesn't matter.
    If the crew is leaded by strong principles, and this applies to kids too,
    they don't need 1 single captain because they can replace him/her to
    go wherever they want to.

  36. Browns Revenge said,

    August 23, 2023 @ 2:15 pm

    I hope you can see this screnshoot taken from the book The Traveler's tree
    US Naval Academy Library, Annapolis

    I hope you solved it.

  37. Viseguy said,

    August 23, 2023 @ 7:09 pm

    I don't plan to listen to the Republican primary debate tonight, but I will be grep'ing -c -i the transcript thereof for "listless vessels". But mainly I'll be wishing that the people who did the opening captions for Fawlty Towers were here to come up with hilarious variations on this DeSantis locution, which reveals how deeply in touch he is with the folks who are his purported base. But since this is not Dump-on-Wannabe-Trump-Candidates Log, I'll just shut up now.

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