Ungetatable, and related words

“It’s ungetatable at the moment, but I’ll let you have it next week,” said a colleague, harassed by a house move, and referring to a book she had borrowed. She left the room, but a pupil who was present asked, hesitantly, whether that was a real English word.

It is of mnemonic value to draw the notice of pupils to this formation in Latin, and there are so many examples, often in memorable phrases, such as:

  • fugit irreparabile tempus
  • miserabile visu
  • genus intractabile bello
  • inextricabilis error

— all of those being from Virgil, all meriting attention, and all having derivatives in English.

But people were taking liberties with this formation even in Virgil’s time. They used it mostly with a passive sense, as with Cygnus in Ovid, Metamorphoses XII.166, who had

  • corpus nullo penetrabile telo

but Virgil uses it with active sense in Georgics I.93, when he mentions

  • Boreae penetrabile frigus

Only the context reveals whether the meaning is active or passive.

As for English: the OED reveals that this -able suffix, which accounts for so many coinages, has been in exuberant use for centuries: not just, or even primarily, from Latin, but more often from French. Not only that: it has been commonplace to add the suffix to Anglo-Saxon words.  Unspeakable is first recorded in 1400, and there seem to be countless others of similar kind: taxable, washable, ironable, eatable, likeable, clubbable, debatable, unthinkable, marriageable, appointable, understandable, stackable, breakable, microwaveable, etc.

This kind of coinage illustrates the liberty of the English language; and the OED seems to suggest that the freedom of this particular suffix may come from the assumption that it is basically the word able: ‘this extension,’ it says, ‘was probably encouraged by early association with the adjective able, to which the suffix is etymologically unrelated…’

That is not entirely true: able can be traced back to the Latin habilis, which Lewis & Short translate as ‘that may be easily handled or managed, manageable, suitable, fit, proper, apt, expert, light, nimble, swift.’

As for ungetatable: it is in the OED, which records its first known use as being in 1862 by the travel writer Horace Marryat.