Word Matters Podcast

Doable vs Feasible, Different Words for the Same Thing

Word Matters, Episode 44

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Is a simple task "doable," or would you consider it "feasible"? Is it different to "buy" something than it is to "purchase" it? Is this description "readable" or merely "legible"?

This week we're looking at what happens when English pulls words from different roots, but uses them in similar ways. Then, we find out how the 'jay' got into 'jaywalking.'

Download the episode here.


Ammon Shea: I've always been fascinated by jaywalking, just as a term. When and where does jaywalking come from?

Peter Sokolowski: Two biggest sources of English words, of course are the historical Old English vocabulary or the Anglo-Saxon language of Britain. And of course the Latin-based Norman French that came in after the Norman Conquest.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters: Another pair of words doing the same job, but slightly differently. And criminalized walking. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Neil Serven, Ammon, Shea, Peter Sokolowski and I explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point. Imagine if you will, wanting to describe a task that one can accomplish, would you say that it's doable or is it feasible? Is there a difference? And how did English end up with so many pairs of words for communicating a single idea? First up, we have Peter Sokolowski with Old English and Latin doubles.

Peter Sokolowski: One of the reasons we have such a rich vocabulary in English is because we have borrowed words from all different kinds of sources. And in fact, 'borrow' is this funny word that linguists use, because we never give the words back. That means they've become part of the English language, but these two biggest sources of English words, of course, are the historical Old English vocabulary or the Anglo-Saxon language of Britain. And of course the Latin-based Norman French that came in after the Norman conquest. And so we have often, what are sometimes called doublets or synonyms, broadly speaking, words that kind of mean the same things semantically, but are often used in different places in terms of usage. In other words, lean and skinny are not exactly interchangeable, but if you were to define them, off-hand you might use the same words, right? Think of something very basic, like the difference between clean and cleanse, which obviously have the same root, but then in a classic case of this sort of pairing of an Old English with a Latin based word, how about the words dead and deceased, which in their basic meanings actually do mean the same thing, but we wouldn't use them in the same places would we?

Emily Brewster: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: And there's so many of these... think of readable versus legible or watch versus visualize or late as opposed to dilatory or same as opposed to equal. There's so many things. Ownership and providence, newness and novelty, needless and unnecessary, buy and purchase. We have so many of these, some of them are just almost so obvious we don't think of them like belly and abdomen or clean and sanitize or gift and present in every one of these cases, the first word I'm using is from Old English, and the second is one of these French Latin terms that has come into the language later. And one of these pairs that does a lot of work in English is doable and feasible. And what's interesting about this to me is that do is a very particular kind of English word. It's an auxiliary verb, it's a function word like be, or have, or can. It helps other words do what they need to do.

Emily Brewster: Right? And it's also one of the most common words in the language.

Peter Sokolowski: Super common.

Emily Brewster: Any speaker of English is going to use the word do, or one of the forms of do, hundreds of times a day.

Peter Sokolowski: Do is one of the workhorses of the language for sure. And we can say doable and doable as a useful word, but there's this other word feasible and feasible comes from the French verb faire and the French word faisable which means the same thing, it means "able to do" or "capable of being done." And what's interesting to me is that these words land in different places. The company they keep is different. This relationship of these two words echoes the relationships that we see between these kinds of pairs between the Old English words and the Latin words so often. In other words, if the difference between the old English word being the kind of household word or the homey word, or the friendly word, as opposed to the Latin word, meaning the technical word, or the medical word, or the legal word, like for example, clean versus sanitize.

Emily Brewster: Or belly and abdomen. That's a really good case. Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: Or lying and mendacious, murder and homicide. We have these pairings; opening and aperture, brotherhood and fraternity, teaching and pedagogy or teeth and dentition. You know, every single time it seems the Latin word refers to something more technical, or legal, or medical, or somehow more abstract than the sort of more earthy English terms. Feasible is associated with terms like option or alternative. A "feasible" solution, a "feasible" plan, whereas doable, we attach to things that are much more concrete. A "doable" target, or "doable" task. And I get these collocations, these groupings of words from some corpus searches to see which ones are the most frequently paired with these words. And what's interesting to me is that doable has this sort of practical sense of "practicable." "We can make this happen." Whereas feasible kind of means "possible" as if this is an idea and not a thing.

Emily Brewster: I think it's funny that something that is doable, you can 'do' something that is doable, but you can't 'feas' something that is feasible.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right, we don't have the verb.

Neil Serven: Well, in the same way, you've mentioned legible and readable. Legible I think is wholly from Latin, whereas people understand that unit "to read," and then they understand that -ible it's a suffix that you can attach to different verbs to make something that is possible to do something. So if something is possible to read, it is readable. Whereas legible, it's not possible to 'lege' something.

Peter Sokolowski: That's right.

Neil Serven: Right? So legible has its own semantic attachment to it, whereas readable kind of uses a twofold logic behind it. And yet people know both particles really well. So they might opt for readable rather than legible for certain circumstances.

Peter Sokolowski: That ending - that A-B-L-E or I-B-L-E ending - that does come from French. As English speakers, we mash it together with a lot of Old English terms like doable, for example, and it's completely transparent and understandable today. "Understandable," get it? We frequently encounter something like a 'feasibility' study and that automatically brings to mind architecture, or planning, or budgeting. We don't do 'doability' studies, although doability is a word that could be used, for sure. It would be understood.

Emily Brewster: 'Doability' study sounds way more friendly.

Peter Sokolowski: There's an emotional distance I find with many of these words. A speaker of English who grows up speaking English might ask a stranger, "Is your mother deceased?" But one would not ask, "Is your mother dead?" And again, those Old English terms tend to be more close to the emotions, closer to the heart, closer to the home, and therefore the emotional distancing of these Latin-based terms.

Neil Serven: I think that also one of the things that determines that formality and the decision between using dead and deceased, dead has many other meanings. "The line went dead," "The phone line went dead," "That's a dead topic," "Our chances are dead." It has all these metaphorical applications, whereas deceased is deceased. I think there's sort of an understanding that there is a time for that metaphorical language or that language that can be casually applied to other contexts. And there are certain times that are not. And so when you're talking about a person who was no longer living in many contexts, you want to be specific and just want to use that word that applies to that one context, rather than a word like dead, which can be applied to so many others.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah, and possibly dead being from Old English, it's had much more time to develop all those different senses too.

Neil Serven: Mm-hm.

Emily Brewster: Although they're both old at this point.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure. Of course, of course.

Emily Brewster: I think there's a specificity often in these Latinate terms. And so there's a narrowness of application that makes them useful when you need to be precise.

Peter Sokolowski: Think of the animal terms, the Old English terms like cat and dog, and feline and canine, Horse and equine, leaf and foliage, time and temporal, or green and verdant, we really do have a sense of richness. And I have to say, the English vocabulary is so big, partly for this reason, something as basic as kingly and royal, which are clearly English and French words, they are synonymous in so many ways, and yet English has these sort of subtle ways of drawing distinctions.

Emily Brewster: There's semantic duplications.

Peter Sokolowski: Absolutely. And yet the usage, the company the words keep is what I mean by usage, the way you encounter these words is often very specific and requires you to learn a lot about the culture and the literature to recognize the difference between kingly and royal, for example. It's interesting too, to go back to the Latin term feasible or feasibility to connect to other words that are related to it like malfeasance, wrongdoing, or misfeasance, which means "to trespass," or nonfeasance. All legal terms. Or the word feasance itself, which is kind of obsolete, but a legal term in English, that meant "the execution of a duty". It's interesting to see too, what words stick and what words sort of fall away over time.

Emily Brewster: And which words enjoy greater usage. So I noticed that feasible and doable, both date to the 15th century, they are the same age. But if you look at our in-house Merriam-Webster literary database, our database of literature, it's 18th, 19th, some early 20th century literature. If you look at that database, there are no examples of doable.

Peter Sokolowski: Interesting.

Emily Brewster: And there are plenty of examples of feasible. So these words, basically the same age, but feasible has enjoyed lots of use and doable in literary context anyway, has not.

Peter Sokolowski: Doable is not in Shakespeare, it's not in the King James Bible, it's not in any of the founding documents of the United States, for example, which were written by very literary-minded people in the late 18th century. So that's interesting, and of course those dates you realize, Emily, also because that ending required French to be there. You know, so do was ancient, but do-able was new.

Emily Brewster: Right. But not all that new.

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Emily Brewster: I think it's still fascinating that the word doable has historically not been done very much.

Neil Serven: It strikes me as a word that might be grabbed on the fly. "I need to do this.", "Oh, I didn't know it was do-able." It kind of felt like it was invented for the purpose of needing something to attach to do, whereas feasible has this kind of longer tradition behind it. And then that's why we don't say we need to "feas" something.

Emily Brewster: I wonder if early uses of 'doable' are kind of jocular. Like as I think about it now, it does seem kind of like a jokey kind of a word.

Peter Sokolowski: Even today. It sure does. Again, these Old English terms often are closer to home, so there's an emotional difference. I would pause at that there's an emotional connection that we have to some words that distinguishes them from others. And that's kind of a fascinating gray area of linguistics.

Emily Brewster: You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. We'll be right back after the break. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Neil Serven: I'm Neil Serven. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word? Email us at wordmatters@m-w.com

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the word of the day. A brief look the definition and history of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And for more podcasts from New England Public Media, visit the NEPM podcast hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: Pedestrians necessarily have a lot on their minds. "Do need an umbrella?" "Is that car going to turn in front of me?" "Are these boots up to the task of getting me through that puddle up there?", And then there's the question of jaywalking. Cross the street at the wrong location, and you've committed a crime. We're not so much interested in the crime, as in the word that's used to refer to it. Why is it called jaywalking? Here's Ammon Shay with the scoop on this bane of the pedestrian's existence.

Ammon Shea: I think of the hosts of the show. I am, correct me if I'm wrong, the only native New Yorker. You guys are all western Massachusetts.

Neil Serven: I'm not a native new Yorker.

Ammon Shea: Right. And one of the things that New Yorkers have is a kind of astonishing provincialism. We sometimes are unaware of things that happen in New York happen in other places in the world. For instance, when you guys cross the street, assuming you all have streetlights in western Massachusetts, and when you cross in a major metropolitan area, and the light is not in your favor, and you're on foot, what do you call that activity? Do you call that jaywalking?

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. Jaywalking.

Emily Brewster: I think of jaywalking more as crossing where there is no crosswalk.

Ammon Shea: Oh, okay.

Peter Sokolowski: So I'm with Emily on that.

Ammon Shea: I think in New York, jaywalking is specifically the act of just running across the red light.

Emily Brewster: Do you have a different term for crossing not at an intersection?

Ammon Shea: We just call that crossing the street. And we define jaywalking as "to cross the street carelessly or in an illegal manner so as to be endangered by traffic." So I don't think that my understanding of it is necessarily the common or, certainly the correct one, but jaywalking is kind of like the national pastime of New York. Especially when I was growing up, everybody jaywalked all the time and it seemed like it wasn't quite as common elsewhere, but I've always been fascinated by jaywalking just as the term, where does jaywalking come from? And oddly enough, it turns out that what's not odd is that it's an early 20th century term, but it was preceded slightly before we had the jaywalker, we had the jay-driver. And 'jay-driver_ begins to come up, and it comes up in Kansas, for some reason, our earliest citations are in 1905 and there was an article called "concerning the Jay Driver." And the jay-driver was somebody who drove on the wrong side of the road.

Peter Sokolowski: And this is automobiles?

Ammon Shea: Yes, or horse drawn carriages. But any kind of wheeled vehicle that was driven on the wrong side of the road. It seems to come from the sense of jay meaning kind of "rube" or "unsophisticated." And what's interesting is that jaywalker caught on almost immediately. We transferred from jay-driver to jay-walker, but the initial use of jaywalker was very similar. The initial use of jaywalker was somebody who walked on the wrong side of the sidewalk, meaning they didn't walk in the outer breadth of the sidewalk. Apparently this is the kind of thing that people used to get upset about. Maybe some people still do, but the two shared space for a couple of years, until 1910 or so. And then it seems like jay-driver had a precipitous decline in use and then heard of it. Jay-driver really fell away. And jaywalker stuck around and broadened obviously from meaning walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk to be somebody who crosses in an unsafe manner.

Emily Brewster: It's kind of a shaming term, right? The jay being a rube, as you said, it's ultimately about trying to impose some kind of sense of propriety.

Ammon Shea: It is, and it's interesting to me that it's kept that sense of shame, but also that it's kept its kind of applicability just to crossing traffic. It really hasn't broadened much, like it broadened right away, and then it stopped. So in terms of semantic drift, kind of showed really early promise. This is where they can go far. And then it said, "Oh, I'm kind of happy just meaning somebody who crosses the street in an improper way."

Neil Serven: I'd always associated the idea of jaywalking with like jay as in like a popinjay.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. I was wondering.

Neil Serven: We define it as "a strutting, supercilious person."

Peter Sokolowski: Right.

Neil Serven: And I believe it relates to birds. I think.

Ammon Shea: So a jaywalker was somebody who just struts across the street?

Emily Brewster: Popinjay, it comes from a word meaning "parrot." It's originally Arabic. It's

Neil Serven: It's like the idea of being a little too proud and not caring about the activity that's going on around you and making other people stop for you is the kind of the idea of jaywalking that I have. It's this way of telling off the motorists, who then have to accommodate you or else they'd run you over and get go to jail or something.

Ammon Shea: I think that jaywalk, jaywalking, jaywalker, it has a number of things that are kind of odd about it. One is that it's not from New York. That's just my own provincialism showing. Two is that it did have this very distinct meaning and it shifted right away. And three is that it was preceded by jay-driver, which has completely died away. And it's never then taken on any kind of extended non-traffic meaning. I like to contrast this to another word, which comes from the fertile ground of traffic studies, which is gridlock. And gridlock did originate in New York City, in about 1980 and referred specifically to a traffic jam in which intersecting streets became so congested vehicles could not pass. And it's still used this way, "There's gridlock in midtown" "There's gridlock downtown, on the east side, whatever." What's interesting about it is that our earliest record of gridlock comes up in 1980 and within the year, it had already been appropriated and people were talking about "government gridlock" that prevented any action.

Emily Brewster: Did you say 1980?

Ammon Shea: Yeah. 1980.

Emily Brewster: That's so much newer than I thought it would be.

Neil Serven: I would have thought it was much older.

Ammon Shea: Right? You would think because we have had traffic jams of this nature, not since time immemorial, but ever since we've had means of driving around places, but it's a very recent word. And then it's almost as though people kind of seized upon this as a very useful word so quickly that within the year it's already changed and taken on this, decided the figurative meaning having nothing whatsoever to do with vehicular traffic.

Neil Serven: I'm wondering if there was a specific purpose to introducing the term gridlock, as a certain kind of traffic jam. Why do you want to specify? And I'm thinking about like radio traffic reports, I don't know how old those are. Was that a new thing in the 1980s, perhaps? When you had your drive time traffic or you wanted to specify....

Ammon Shea: There is a specific event, actually. And although what we know of gridlock is that it may well have existed before 1980, our earliest written records so far is 1980, but really the precipitating factor was a transit strike that happened to New York City. And what happens when we have transit strikes in New York City is there are a million and one yahoos who all think "Oh, no problem. I'm just going to drive the car downtown." And everybody drives the car downtown and then you get massive gridlock. There's a reason why public transportation makes cities work, and it's because you don't have everybody driving their car. And this has happened in my lifetime, and several times that we've had strikes is you have horrendous vehicular traffic as a result. And so there was a kind of large transit strike in 1980, and it lasted more than a week. And then there were immediately significantly elevated levels of traffic and gridlock was widely used along with another word, which was spillback, which didn't really catch on.

Peter Sokolowski: Spillback, in other words, the traffic on maybe the adjoining street can't make a turn because that street is full. And then that causes kind of gridlock on a third street.

Ammon Shea: Presumably, but it's had so little use since 1980 that I don't think we really know.

Emily Brewster: So what was the early figurative use of gridlock about? Was it legislative gridlocks specifically?

Ammon Shea: Well, we have a citation from a Rochester newspaper, The Democrat and Chronicle, which says "'The Environmental Protection Agency's policies make it possible to burn anything else,' he said, "'a governmental gridlock that prevents any action.'" That was in 1980 in November. So within the year. Right but it does often seem to be political. In 1981, we have a citation, "What the 1978 amendments actually did, were to create a kind of gridlock the billboard industry wants." So that's maybe more business-related. The Baltimore Sun also in 1981, "I also mentioned satellites, and landlines, and remotes, okay what I'm talking about, but really it's like, you can economics when I hear about it, my mind goes into gridlock." And so that's not related to anything aside of one fellow's inability to properly form thoughts. So it's certainly non-political.

Peter Sokolowski: It's used in political contexts all the time. Yeah.

Ammon Shea: I think the dominance has been political gridlock.

Emily Brewster: And there are other traffic terms that have figurative use that are also active in politics. Even omnibus. We talked about that before about bus. Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: An omnibus bill means one that incorporates everything.

Emily Brewster: That's right. But omnibus is also the source of our word bus, the vehicle.

Ammon Shea: Are there any other traffic terms that have...

Emily Brewster: Well, red light.

Peter Sokolowski: Red light.

Emily Brewster: When I think of gridlock, I have not spent a huge amount of time in New York City, but I have read more than once the book The Pushcart War, have you all ever read that?

Ammon Shea: Oh, sure. I love that book.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. It's a wonderful book. And it is a book about these enormous trucks that are just overtaking the streets of Manhattan. Three different trucking companies, they have all these absolutely enormous trucks and they're causing enormous traffic problems in Manhattan. And they pin the blame on the pushcart vendors and the pushcart vendors push back. And there are pea shooters involved and it is an absolutely fantastic book. I kind of had assumed that the word gridlock appears in that book, but apparently it doesn't.

Ammon Shea: I don't think that it does, but I could be wrong. I think they just talk about traffic jams in that book.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. Well and traffic jam, that's another, the idea of jamming.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure, and fast lane.

Neil Serven: I have to say, I didn't immediately know when I heard the term gridlock that it referred to the specific kind of jam in regard to the grid of city streets and intersections. And so I'm trying to think if I had ever heard it, like on a highway traffic report, could you have gridlock on I-95 or something like that? I'm wondering if it's sort of extended beyond the city use just as an other way of saying traffic jam.

Ammon Shea: I don't know because we do have the word just traffic. "Traffic on I-90."

Emily Brewster: And we say "bumper to bumper," we use modifiers of the term traffic to talk about it being just how bad it is.

Ammon Shea: I mean, one of the things that we know about language is that it doesn't follow the kinds of rules that we want it to follow. So if there's a term that we think, "Oh, that's a very useful term." It doesn't necessarily mean that it will be adopted. One of my favorite examples of that is in Henry Cockeram's 1623 dictionary, he has the word debacchate, which means "to revile one after the manner of drunkards" In no way, can we say this is a just world, that this word has not survived. It is so useful, it is so applicable, everyone has at some point in their lives, if you live long enough, been reviled by somebody else in the manner of a drunkard. And yet, none of us know or ever used the word debacchate. So there really is no justice, linguistically speaking, in the world. So we can't expect traffic words to follow the same kind of orderly the path of the universe that we wished they would. Sometimes we have two words for something. Sometimes we have no words where we definitely need one.

Emily Brewster: And yet we can debacchate at traffic. Is this a transitive verb? Do you debacchate gridlock?

Ammon Shea: You know, Henry Cockeram didn't get into transitive and intransitive. He just kind of threw words out there and hoped that they would stick. And most of them didn't.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, we just want to make sure that you stay in your lane.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us on Apple Podcasts or email us at wordmatters@m-w.com. You can also visit us nepm.org, and for the word of the day and all your general dictionary needs, visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by Adam Maid and John Voci. For Neil Serven, Ammon Shea, and Peter Sokolowski, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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