Two haves that look like have-nots

Just about everyone recognizes the first part of the English word malady. It comes from Latin male, which meant the same as its Spanish descendant mal ‘badly.’ The second part of malady, which English took from Old French, remains opaque. If we trace the compound back to Latin, we find it began as the two-word phrase male habitus ‘badly held,’ whose second element is the past participle of habēre, the ancestor of Spanish haber ‘to have.’

In the case of the English adjective able, but the loss of an initial h- in Old French, which is where English acquired the word, ended up concealing the word’s origin in Latin habilis, whose meanings were ‘that may be easily handled or managed, manageable, suitable, fit, proper, apt, expert, light, nimble, swift.’ The ‘handled’ sense shows that the Romans created habilis from habēre ‘to have, hold, possess, handle.’ In another instance of Seeing Isn’t Believing, the Latin adjective suffix -abilis is unrelated.

© 2017 Steven Schwartzman

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. shoreacres
    Feb 13, 2017 @ 07:23:55

    This morning, the complexities of all this suggested to me that exploring word connections is a bit like human genealogy. You poke around and poke around, and suddenly you find some second cousins, twice removed. That you’re able to handle the job so nicely certainly benefits the rest of us.

    Reply

    • Steve Schwartzman
      Feb 13, 2017 @ 14:04:50

      Words have their family trees too. Your mention of second cousins twice removed is apropos, given the various generations of Eve’s family that gathered here (in NZ) for the wedding of a niece three days ago.

      Reply

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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