Once upon a Times, which is to say the New York Times, that newspaper had impeccable proofreading: I could read issue after issue after issue without ever finding a mistake. Those days, alas, are long gone, and for the last few years I’ve rarely looked through an issue of “the newspaper of record” without noticing one or more mistakes. This morning, for example, I began to read the article under the headline “MUBARAK OUT.” Just three sentences into the story, I came to this: “Tens of thousands who had bowed down for evening prayers leapt to their feat, bouncing and dancing in joy.” If I were charitable and inclined to give credit where probably none is due, I could say that the “feat” in “leapt to their feat” was a clever, intentional misspelling based on the feat of getting an autocrat of three decades to resign. More likely the writer, having just typed the word leapt, unconsciously carried over the -ea- spelling into the word feet; the mind is quicker than the hand, and I, never a great typist, have found myself making that sort of mistake on plenty of occasions. That’s what proofreaders and editors are for.
In any case, a feat, as the 1913 Webster’s Dictionary tells us, is ‘an act; a deed; an exploit,’ in particular ‘a striking act of strength, skill, or cunning…,’—and we can add, a century later, ‘as, for instance, the feat of overthrowing of a dictator.’ English accomplished the feat of having the largest vocabulary in the world by borrowing freely from many languages. In the case of feat itself, English took the word from Anglo-Norman, where it had developed from Latin factum, the past participle of the verb facere ‘to do.’ We recognize the Latin past participle factum as the source of English fact, which is therefore a doublet of feat. In Spanish, Latin factum evolved to hecho, two meanings of which are, not surprisingly, ‘a feat’ and ‘a fact.’
Spanish used to have the Latin-derived noun facto, but it has become archaic; where English uses the Latin phrase de facto alongside the familiar in fact, Spanish prefers its native de hecho. The Spanish phrase hecho consumado corresponds to what English calls, using a French expression, a fait accompli. English also turned to French for the adjective feasible, while Spanish went back to Latin for factible, which in fact means ‘feasible.’ While it would seem feasible for Spanish to have a matching noun, there is apparently no *factibilidad corresponding to English feasibility, which the three Spanish-English dictionaries I consulted all translate into Spanish as ‘viabilidad.’
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman