English adjectives and nouns

like agile, ballabile, cessile, debile, flebile and labile

Increase your English vocabulary with adjectives bearing the Latin-based suffix -ile

Bill Casselman

At the Wording Desk

In medical chartese and in the more coherent realms of psychiatric mumbo jumbo, labile means ‘liable to burst into tears at any moment, emotionally unstable.’

Once in the merciful long-ago, I knew a person who, viewing a pleasant sunset through a living-room window at dusk, was likely to begin gently weeping. “Why?” asked courtly moi. “Because another day is dying. Sob. Snurfle. Boo-hoo. Blub. Wahhhhh!” Now that’s labile! My suggestion to this Canadian version of la Llorona Spanish ‘the weeping woman’ (one of the most widespread of Hispanic-American ghost stories) would be: absterge thy moist nostrils with a tissue. Honk into a Kleenex and clean up your act, lady! Labile does not imply that one is preternaturally sensitive; it’s just medical jargon for a crybaby.

If such lachrymosity is left unattended and allowed to fester, then her future may hear the faint tinkle caused by the snapping open of an ampoule of Thorazine.

In everyday hospital use, labile means prone to mood changes or uncontrolled emotional upset. From Latin lābilis whose literal sense is ‘able or liable to slip,’ made up of the Latin verb lābī ‘to slip, to fall’ + a Latin suffix –ilis, –ile that gives English many adjectives like agile, civil, docile, facile, fragile (and its doublet frail), juvenile, motile, and percentile.

But labile finds use in other sciences too. In physics and chemistry, labile means ‘chemically unstable, liable to change its chemical composition.’ In medical literature, one may read of labile hypertension (being subject to blood pressure fluctuations) or labile diabetes (fluctuations in glucose tolerance).

Suffix makes Adjectives and Nouns
The –il/ -ile is a very common adjectival suffix from Latin forms in ilis- and -īlis, which sometimes form nouns too. Sterile is an adjective, but fossil is a noun.

Fossa as a Latin Word
To the ancient Romans, fossa meant ‘a ditch’ or a ‘trench.’ It was a short form which began as terra fossa ‘earth dug-up.’ For it is the feminine past participial form of the verb fodere ‘to excavate, to dig up,’ whose citational form is fodio, fodere, fodi, fossus. Thus the prime meaning of the pure Latin neuter adjective fossile is ‘something able to be dug up.’ Fossorial claws on an animal’s feet are adapted for digging.

Fossile & Fossil
Fossile ‘something able to be dug up’ referred at first in Middle French to any mineral which could be extracted by mining. Only later did the English-borrowed word fossil acquire a semantic extension that permitted it to refer to the jawbone of an extinct triceratops.

Febrile means ‘having a fever.’ Base root is the Latin feminine noun febris ‘high body temperature.’ Etymon of the Latin noun is obscure but Brugmann makes a clever and cogent guess in Grundriss II. 92, where he posits febris as an intensive reduplication of some pre-Latin root like *bhe-bhr-, similar to the Sanskrit bhur- ‘to be restless,’ as in the tossings and turnings of a feverish patient.

Utterly obsolete is flebile, used by one writer in the eighteenth century to refer to a mournful or sad style, for example in the composition of an obituary. In Latin flebilis means ‘capable of being wept over, lamentable, plaintive, and doleful, ’from the Latin verb fleo, flere, flevi, fletus ‘to weep.’ The much commoner English adjective feeble is a direct derivative of flebilis.

From Latin volare ‘to fly,’ this word began in English as a plural noun. Volatiles were birds. Today its adjectival use alone survives, where it is descriptive of chemical substances easily vaporized or liable to quick evaporation. Keeping it company are more obscure cousins like aquatile ‘growing or living in water’ from Latin aqua ‘water’,  fluviatile ‘found or living in rivers from Latin fluvius ‘river, literally ‘thing that flows’ (think of the similarly dervied French word for 'river' fleuve) and umbratile ‘thriving in the shade’ from Latin umbra ‘shadow, shade.’

Ballabile & Cantabile
These are two of my pet adjectives in this group. Ballabile (Italian ball-AH-bee-lay) originally an Italian musical notation ‘able to be danced to’ from Italian ballare ‘to dance,’ the same etymon as ballet. Now in musical description it is a noun naming a piece of music that a corps de ballet or an opera chorus may dance to. To a pronouncing tongue, spoken in the Italian manner, ballabile is delectable.

Likewise cantabile was a musical adjective whose original sense was ‘able to be sung, suitable for singing, singable’ thus its developed meaning ‘in a sweet, gliding, smoothly flowing style’ from Italian cantare ‘to sing.’

My favorite English word in –ile is rare, cessile. It has one very narrow sense and is only used with the noun air. Cessile air yields to human use, cessile air seems suspended from above merely to delight us. It is found in late sixteenth-century hymns and, memorably, in one of the most splendid novels in English, Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce on page 402 in the chapter entitled “Oxen of the Sun”: “Scintillant circumambient cessile air.” If ever the gift of a summer afternoon’s breeze was better described, I have not encountered it.

Erectile, tactile, ductile, docile, contractile are all rather obvious in their meanings. But, although English still uses debility as a noun meaning weakness, its adjective has become obsolete and so the aptly-sounding debile ‘weak’ has been lost to our language. Debile merits revival. The British pronunciation (DEB-l) gives the word a properly feeble sound. Latin debilis has a prime and sensuous meaning of ‘lacking aptitude’ from the negatizing Latin prefix de- + Latin adjective habilis ‘apt, able to, capable of.’

So we come to an end of febrile, docile, labile, debile frailties. Casting off such weaknesses, boldly we arise anew to ancestral vigor and joy, cavorting in a rapt delirium of blood bliss, of biophilic jubilation, of the simple homespun glee of good health.

Bill Casselman, January 10, 2017

Text copyright 2017 Wiliam Gordon Casselman