Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

I was brought up short by a word used by Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton recently. Speaking of his position in this year’s championship, where he currently holds a lead of four points over his main rival, the British ace said:

I have zero comfortability. Since the last race I have not thought for one second that I am leading the world championship.

It’s immediately clear what the word means: the condition of being or feeling comfortable. So why did it give me pause, and why did he say it?

There’s a perfectly good noun for the state Hamilton was describing, and it’s comfort. It’s extremely common and has been around for a very long time. Comfortability is attested in our corpus but it’s pretty rare: just over 1600 citations against over a million for comfort. So why did he choose it?

I think the answer lies partly in the form of the adjective. Most adjectives ending in -able form nouns ending in -ability: reliable, suitable, dependable, knowledgeable, respectable and many others all have related nouns that end in this way. So it would be logical for comfortable to have a related noun, comfortability.  But it doesn’t, usually, probably because the noun came first, entering the language well before the adjective, although both originally had different meanings.

So does comfortability have anything to add to the language? I think it does. The contexts in which it is used show that it carries an element of added meaning: something like ‘the degree or level to which something is comfortable’, rather than just the fact of being comfortable. And in fact Hamilton’s use of the word suggests that this was his meaning, since he modifies it with ‘zero’.

As it happens, there is a little cluster of nouns ending in -ability that are used to talk about how a vehicle feels to drive: words like driveability, steerability, manoeuvrability, ridability. It could also be that in seeking to express his feeling of discomfort, Hamilton reached for a word that is similar to those associated with what he does every day.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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