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Q&A

How did “-able” semantically shift to mean “requiring”?

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Etymonline on "-able" doesn't expound the origin of "requiring".

-able

common termination and word-forming element of English adjectives (typically based on verbs) and generally adding a notion of "capable of; allowed; worthy of; requiring; to be ______ed," sometimes "full of, causing," from French -able and directly from Latin -abilis. It is properly -ble, from Latin -bilis (the vowel being generally from the stem ending of the verb being suffixed), and it represents PIE *-tro, a suffix used to form nouns of instrument, cognate with the second syllables of English rudder and saddle (n.).

For example, "payABLE" literally means ABLE to pay. Ability differs from requirement. How did "payable" semantically shift to meaning 1 below?

  1. (of money) required to be paid; due.

  2. Able to be paid.

payables

Debts owed by a business; liabilities.

payable (adj.) on Etymonline

late 14c., paiable, "to be paid, that can be or is to be paid,"
from pay (v.) + -able or from Old French paiable. From late 13c. as a surname, from the Old French word in its other sense, "of good quality."

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2 comments

I question your premise that "[l]iterally, 'payABLE' means ABLE to pay". Although the -able suffix has that meaning in some words, it more often means "able to be [verb]ed", as in pronounceable, edible, tradable, readable, and many more. msh210‭ 4 months ago

@msh210 You may be correct, but I can ask the same question for "able to be [verb]ed". Ability to be paid doesn't mean requirement to be paid. So "payable" did shift semantically. PSTH‭ 4 months ago

2 answers

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Polite language got turned into legal language maybe?

The first example that comes up when I google the word "payable" is "interest is payable on the money owing." And from Dictionary.com I get "a loan payable in 30 days." In both cases I can interpret "payable" in its literal sense: I am able to pay the interest, and I am able to pay off the loan in 30 days. My guess is that people started using payable to sound polite, like at a fancy cafe your waiter might say "you can pay at counter whenever you're ready" when she really means "you need to go to the counter to pay before you leave." It helps establish a level of trust or mutual respect when the waiter assumes that you want to pay and she only needs to tell you how, instead of assuming that someone needs to force you to pay for your coffee.

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+0
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How did "payable" semantically shift to meaning 1 below?

The shift seems to be the other way round: the earliest citation that OED has for paiable in the sense of "which must be paid" predates its earliest citation for the sense "which can be paid" by three centuries.

1394 We chargede the forsaid Maner of Slapton with an annuel rente of xl pound paiable to the vs of his chaunterie ther.

1692 Thanks are a Tribute payable by the poorest.

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