Etymology of Ability

The word ability is defined by most dictionaries as the capacity to do something, whether that something is physical, mental, spiritual, moral, financial, career-related, love-related, social-related does not matter. If you are able to do something, then you possess the ability to perform that something.

Ability is deeply intertwined with competence, e.g.: the ability to dance confidently, the ability to act on your decisions, the ability to perform a complex task, the ability to construct a coherent text, etc.


It’s important to first distinguish ability the noun from ability the word-creating component. The latter one descends from the Latin abilitas while the noun descends from the Latin habilitas / habilitatis. It’s critical to understand that abilitas and habilitatis are not etymologically affiliated. Abilitas is for words ending in -abilis, such as durabilis (durable), mutabilis (mutable) and amabilis (lovable).

Etymology of Ability

The first reference to the late Middle English word ability was found in fourteenth century manuscripts. As shown on the picture above, it comes from the Latin habilis, which means able. It then evolved into the Latin word habilitas which is a combination of the Latin words habil (skillful) and itas (indicates a state of being)—and thus the word ability was born. From there it evolved into the Old French ablete and then the late Middle English ability.


Barnhart, Robert K., ed., Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, H.W. Wilson Co., 1988.,. ‘The Definition Of Ability‘. N.p., 2015. Web. 15 Nov. 2015.

Lewis, Charlton T., Elementary Latin Dictionary, Oxford, 1890.