Will's word

14th March 2003 at 00:00
Inhabitable (adjective) "capable of being lived in" This sense arrived in English from Latin around 1600, and immediately went into competition with the earlier use of the word, which had arrived from French 200 years earlier. The trouble is that the two senses are totally opposite.

The French took the prefix in the reversative sense: "not capable of being lived in" - what today we would describe as "uninhabitable". And this is the sense you need when you hear Mowbray say to King Richard that he would fight Henry Bolingbroke even if he were "tied to run afooteven to the frozen ridges of the Alps,Or any other ground inhabitable" (Richard II, I.i.65).

Shakespeare only uses the word once, but he was not alone in its use. In the Douai Bible of 1609 we find: "Her cities shall be desolate and inhabitable" (Jeremiah 48.9) - "uninhabited".

David Crystal is author, with Ben Crystal, of Shakespeare's Words, published by Penguin

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