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