Will's word

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Capable (adjective) able, competent; susceptible

The word arrived in English from French in the mid-15th century, and soon developed a range of meanings, some of which go well beyond the senses that have remained in modern English. Thus when Hamlet says of the Ghost: "His form and cause conjoined, preaching to stones,Would make them capable"

(Hamlet, III.iv.128), he means that even stones would become receptive after an encounter with his father. This meaning, of "sensitive, responsive" is also seen when Phebe talks about a "capable impressure" on the palm of a hand (As You Like It, III.v.23). And it adds an extra barb when Thersites retorts, being asked to take a letter to Ajax: "Let me carry another to his horse, for that's the more capable creature" (Troilus and Cressida, III.iii.307). He is insulting Ajax's intelligence here, not his strength. Other obsolete senses are found when Othello asks that his bloody thoughts be swallowed up by "a capable and wide revenge" (Othello, III.iii.456), where the word means "capacious, comprehensive", and in Gloucester's promise to Edmund to make him "capable" (King Lear, II.i.84), where it means "able to inherit".

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