‘Discernable’, I hear you say. ‘There’s no such word!’

While editing the other day I came across this spelling, and it had me scratching my head. ‘A mistake, surely?’ said I to myself, a tad too smugly, as it turned out.

I thought I’d better check all the same.

I’m glad I did, for thereby hangs a tale of imported words, historical swapping, and current variation or uncertainty.

Is it correct, you might ask? Well, yes and no. (It depends what you consult.)

Is it frequent? (For those in a hurry [FTIAH], far less so than discernible.)

And what does ‘the dictionary’ say? ([FTIAH], It depends which one.)

Which came first? And where from? (Read on.)

If I write discernable, am I wrong? (Read on.)

READ ON

‘The dictionary’ says:

  1. The Online Oxford Dictionary gives it as an alternative form under the headword discernible.
  2. Collins proclaims itrare’ and ‘another word for discernible’.
  3. Google asks ‘did you mean discernible?’
  4. Merriam-Webster online makes it a subentry under discern, ‘discernible or less commonly discernable’.
  5. M-W Unabridged gives it as an alternative under discernible with no comment on relative frequency.
  6. In its etymology rubric for discernible, the OED says ‘compare earlier discernable’, which has its own (Dec. 2013) entry.

So, if you go by ‘the dictionary’, it exists and is valid.

However, the OED entry for discernable has a cautionary note: ‘discernible is now the more common word; some later examples of discernable may show typographical errors for it.’ (My underlining.)

And the ‘After Deadline’ column’s spelling check in the NYT – admittedly back in 2010 – had this to say:

‘Here’s a new nominee for the title of most-frequently-misspelled word (by percentage of uses): “discernible.”

Like “legible” and “divisible,” it ends in “-ible” rather than “-able” (the spelling generally depends on how the original Latin verb was conjugated). In the past year we used “discernible” in articles 92 times and “discernable” 15 times, for an error rate of about 14 percent.

Granted, a few dictionaries charitably list “discernable” as an alternate spelling, but the Oxford English Dictionary describes it as a 16th-to-18th-century variant. We should stick to “discernible.”’

By Philip B. Corbett January 19, 2010 11:05 Am

 



Where do discernible/discernable come from?

There’s a bit of a story to unravel here. The M-W unabridged puts it in a nutshell:

Origin of DISCERNIBLE

discernible alteration (influenced by Late Latin discernibilis, from Latin discernere + –ibilis -ible) of discernable; discernable from Middle French, from discerner + -able

In other words, it suggests that what most people would today take to be the standard form is an alteration of the form in –able.

Does the OED agree?

Not exactly, but it does provide some interesting historical information.

Stepping back a bit from either derivative, let’s take the verb discern. The OED gives it a dual parentage from French AND Latin. (Words from ‘French and/or Latin’ constitute the fourth-largest group of loanwords in English, after those from [you’ll have guessed already] Latin only, French only, and Greek, and ahead of German]. It is first recorded from before 1325 (i.e. the exact date is not known).

DISCERNABLE

Given its existence in English, discern, like so very many other verbs, was then capable of having the suffix –able added – or, as the OED puts it: ‘formed within English by derivation’ – when the need to express the idea of ‘able to be discerned’ arose. Which it did, but not before 1548, it seems, and then in a rather sad cause.

1548   W. Patten The Expedicion into Scotlande of…Prince Edward, Duke of Somerset sig. k.vi

That woorthy gentleman and valiaunt Captain all piteefully disfigured and mangled amoong them lay: and but by his bearde nothing discernable.

That extract is from the account of the disastrous (for the Scots) battle between the English and Scots armies at Pinkie Cleugh (near Musselburgh, which is not far from Edinburgh), on 10 September, 1547. Possibly as many as 6,000 Scots were killed out of an army of 22,000 to 23,000.

In that extract, the meaning is not the main modern one of ‘perceptible’ but rather that of ‘recognizable’, in this case only by the subject’s beard. (How you recognize a man by his beard alone could be a skill we moderns have lost. Hipsters take note.)

Lord Protector Somerset by Holbein (Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, under whose auspices the attack on Scotland took place.) You’d have to be Herculeanly butch to get away with that look nowadays.

That meaning of ‘perceptible (to the mind)’ first surfaced thirteen years later, in a translation of Calvin (the theologian)’s work:

1561   T. Norton tr. J. Calvin Inst. Christian Relig. i. xvii. f. 62   The schoole of certayn and plainly discernable trueth [L. certae conspicuaeque veritatis schola].

It is worth noting, firstly, that the OED gives twenty-first century citations for four out of the five meanings it assigns to discernable (the fifth being, in any case, obsolete).

Second, the OED also notes ‘Compare Middle French, French discernable visible, (in later use also) that can be perceived by the mind or intellect (16th cent.)…’ which leaves it tantalizingly unclear what influence the OUP lexicographers think French had on the word. (Remember what M-W Unabridged says, quoted earlier.)

DISCERNIBLE…

is a direct borrowing from the Late Latin discernibilis, from the Latin verb discernere mentioned earlier, ‘to separate, to distinguish, to settle, decide’ (from which comes discrete, meaning ‘separate’ and not ‘tactful’, which is spelled discreet). I wonder if its replacing the –able form is an example of the philological Latinizing trend that e.g. added the b to debt.

It currently has all the same meanings as discernable, and one extra, historically (= capable of discerning), with which it first appeared in 1603 in a work by the Elizabethan/Jacobean poet Samuel Daniel:

1603   S. Daniel Panegyrike sig. B3   God..Hath giuen thee all those powers of worthinesse, Fit for so great a worke, and fram’d thy hart Discernible of all apparences.

 

 


The first OED citation for one of its current meanings (‘That can be discerned or perceived by the mind or intellect.’) is:

1616   S. S. Honest Lawyer i. sig. B

I am composd most of the nimbler elements: But little water in me, farre lesse earth, some aire..but their mixture Is scarce discernible, th’are so dispers’d. For my predominant qualitie is all fire.

A contemporary OED example with the same meaning is: 2003   N.Y. Mag. 3 Nov. 90/3   Songs that stop and start for no discernible reason.

Finally, in the meaning of ‘visible’ we have the first appearance in 1678:

W. Thomas Serm. preached before Lords 36

Elijah’s little Cloud scarce discernible at first aspect, but being dilated, blackens the Heavens.

And more recent quotations from George Eliot and Ian McEwan:

1866   ‘G. Eliot’ Felix Holt I. ii. 67   There was the slightest possible quiver discernible across Jermyn’s face.

2001   I. McEwan Atonement 160   There was nothing, nothing but the tumbling dark mass of the woods just discernible against the greyish-blue of the western sky.

Tbc in another blog, with information on relative frequencies.

1 Comment

  1. I personally prefer the -able spelling. It makes sense to me that you are ‘able’ to discern. You wouldn’t say I’m ‘ible’ to discern. Just my humble opinion.

    Liked by 1 person

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