From Middle English, from Old Northern French able, variant of Old French abile, habile, from Latin habilis ("easily managed, held, or handled; apt; skillful"), from habeō ("have, hold").


From Middle English ablen, from Middle English able (adjective).


From Middle English, from Old French, from Latin -ābilis, from -a- or -i- + bilis ("capable or worthy of being acted upon").

Not closely related etymologically, though currently related semantically, to able.

Replaced native Old English -bǣre ("bearing, making, worth"), from Proto-Germanic *bēriz, *bērijaz; and -lic ("like, having the quality of"), from Proto-Germanic *-līkaz. Compare German -bar, Dutch -baar.

What's the etymology relationship between these words? Why the description is "not closely related"?

  • 1
    Are these etymologies drawn from the OED? I am looking for the sources used in this exchange. Many thanks!
    – user10379
    Commented Aug 30, 2015 at 22:00

1 Answer 1


The Latin roots of the English word able are:

  • The verb habeo: "to have, hold"

  • The suffix -bilis: "that ought or can easily be [verb]ed"

The (unattested) Latin form was *habibilis, as mentioned by Sihler and noted by Tom Recht below. In classical Latin, this had been shortened to habilis, as it often happens with double syllables (called haplology). The h- had disappeared in certain French forms and dialects by the time the word was borrowed by English, and -lis regularly evolved into -le in French, resulting in English acquiring the word able.

The Latin root of the English suffix -able is:

  • The suffix -bilis: "capable or worthy of being [verb]ed"

The -a- was originally only present in verbs whose stems ended on -a-, such as ama-re "to love", resulting in ama-bilis "worthy of being loved"; however, this was later extended to other formations with -bilis, resulting in an an alternative suffix -abilis.

It is possible that the -ilis part in -bilis is related to the separate suffix -ilis as used in habilis, but I cannot find a definitive etymology for -bilis.

  • 1
    Sihler (New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin) derives habilis by haplology from the expected *habi-bilis. He derives -bilis from a Proto-Italic -θlis (with anaptyctic -i-), presumably from the same PIE -dhl- that shows up in the instrumental suffix -dhlo-. So the answer would be that they are partially related, i.e. able historically contains -able.
    – TKR
    Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 1:55
  • @TomRecht: Ah, good work! Meillet didn't mention habibilis, but I will trust Sihler in this. Do you happen to know how confident he is about the derivation of -bilis from -θlis > -dhlo-? I remember seeing -dhlo- mentioned by some etymologists, but they seemed uncertain. // By the way, does Sihler give the etymology of most Latin affixes? Does he also mention -(i)lis?
    – Cerberus
    Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 2:40
  • Sihler's discussion is under the rubric of "Anaptyxis in Latin" (p. 90), so he doesn't explicitly etymologize these affixes; but among his examples of anaptyxis is stabilis, which he states is from PItal. * staθlis. The connection with PIE -dhlo- is my own interpretation (hence "presumably"), but I would guess Sihler thinks the same since in the same line he also mentions stabulum < * staθlom, which certainly contains that suffix. I don't think he gives an etymology for -(i)lis, or for most other derivational suffixes, except incidentally by way of exemplification.
    – TKR
    Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 3:52
  • @TomRecht: OK thanks! From what I remember reading elsewhere, the connection between -dhlo- and -bul-[us|a|um] seemed to be accepted, but they were vague about the connection between -bilis and -bul-, and also vague about the connection between -dhlo- and -bilis...
    – Cerberus
    Commented Sep 9, 2013 at 5:19

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