Thursday, October 17, 2013

Language of Confusion: Able

Able is one of those words that’s tacked onto the ends of other words all the time to make them into something else. Now, I won’t be getting into all of them, because there are hundreds, maybe more if you ignore normal grammatical conventions, but I will mention those that aren’t normally seen without able at the end and even those are numerous enough that this needs two parts. Plus the word itself. I mean, duh.

First showed up in the early fourteenth century, coming from the Old French hable/able and classical Latin habilem/habilis, which means something like fit, handy, or adaptable, a different tense of the word habere, have or hold. That h was silent in the Latin and French versions, so it’s no wonder it was dropped from the English spelling. However, that H is still around in another word descended from habere: habit. And what I learned: able and ability are not related to words with the suffix -able. They actually come from the Latin suffices -abilitas and -abilis, which were basically ways to turn verbs into nouns.

Showed up in the late fifteenth century from the Old French affable and classical Latin affabilis, approachable. The a- comes from the prefix ad-, meaning to in our friend Latin, and the -ffa- comes from fari, to speak, making it a nounizing of “to speak to”.

Amiable showed up in the mid-fourteenth century while amicable didn’t show up until the early fifteenth century. Both come from the Late Latin amicabilis, friendly, from the classical Latin word amicus, friend, and amare, love. The reason why we have both words is because amiable comes by way of Old French, which dropped the c, while amicable does not.

This one’s relatively late, not showing up until the mid-sixteenth century. It comes from the Middle French capable and Late Latin capabilis, able to grasp or hold (and totally not related to habere), and the classical Latin capax, with the same meaning we know it as. It can even be traced further back to the Proto Indo European kap, which means to grasp (if you’re capable, you have a grasp of something). In other words, it’s making a noun out of grasp. Kind of like graspable.

An early word, coming around in the late thirteenth century as coupable from the Old French…coupable. I guess we weren’t differentiating ourselves enough. Either way, the word comes from the classical Latin culpabilis, blameworthy, and culpare, to blame, both of which stem from culpa, fault.

Showed up in the mid-sixteenth century from the Late Latin despicabilis and classical Latin despicari, despise. That word is a combination of de-, down, and spicare (or specere), to look. I guess that makes it to-look-down-upon-able.

Showed up in the late fourteenth century from the classical Latin durabilis, lasting, and durare, to last. It’s related to endure. Hm, nothing interesting about this one.

Effable, expressible, showed up in the early seventeenth century and is hardly used today, but it was preceded by ineffable, unspeakable, by over two hundred years and that word is still used…well, sometimes. The former comes from the classical Latin effabilis and effari, to utter. Likewise, the latter comes from ineffabilis, literally unutterable. The in- prefix means opposite of. Effabilis is a pieced together word, too; the e- is from ex-, out, and fari, which I mentioned in the affable entry means speak.

Yep, another one. Exorable, persuadable, showed up in the late sixteenth century, from the classical Latin exorabilis and exorare, to persuade. Inexorable, unpersuadable, showed up earlier, but only by a couple of decades, from (of course) the classical Latin inexorabilis. Like above, the in- means opposite of, and exorare is a mix of ex- (out) and another word (orare, pray).

Whew, that’s a long post, and there’s still more to come. Yay?



  1. I'd love to share this with my English class. Oh wait -- the Technology Nazi in my district blocked all of Blogger from our network. Her decision. Didn't bother to consult with teachers. Not that I'm sore about it or anything.

    I'll have to just make a mental note and share the words you noted (crediting you of course) when we study this suffix.

  2. More to come? Only if you're able!
    Look-dwon-upon-able. Much easier to say despicable.

  3. Every time I read one of these posts, I wonder how our language will have evolved a few hundred years from now.

  4. I met a kid named Habel. When I called roll, I pronounced the H. He informed me that his name was "Abel" and the H was silent. Funny that that's how able evolved.

  5. So many uses for it.

    When I see the word despicable, my idiot ex-brother-in-law comes to mind....


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