ARL Archive · Know Your Words

I Saw It on Twitter: Fungible

What the F does fungible mean? The word sounds like a mixture of fun, fungus, and gullible, and although I was never quite sure what it meant, I figured it had something to do with economics or funds, based on context clues.
Fungible 2As it turns out, that guess wasn’t too off the mark, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, particularly when you consider how it’s used in this tweet from NPR.

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (WNWDAL) says the word comes from the Middle Latin word fungibilis, which comes from the (early?) Latin word fungi, meaning “to perform.” It defines fungible as:

In law, designating goods, as grain, any unit or part of which can replace another unit, as in discharging a debt; capable of being used in place of another.

Seems to me, the second part of that definition could be used in place of the first — because the first part didn’t make much sense. But I digress ….

My Oxford Latin Dictionary tells a slightly different story, noting that the Latin word for perform (or discharge a duty) is fungor. Close enough, I suppose.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), agrees with Webster’s (or maybe vice versa). It also traces fungible back to Latin fungi, which it  defines as “to take the place, or to fulfill the office of.” It also traces the word back to 1765, where it was used in the following sentence: “Grain and coin are fungibles, because one guinea or one bushel or boll of sufficient merchantable wheat precisely supplies the place of another.”

Grain and guineas are all well and good, but that’s not how the word in used in this NPR tweet. Here, the world is being used to mean “flexible,” but not in a good way.  This kind of “flexibility” is akin to bending the rules or weakening one’s former pledge or position on an issue.

Obviously, “the ability to use one thing in place of another” (i.e., interchangeability) and “flexibility” are somewhat related. After all, in matters of business and deal-making, one might find a certain benefit in not being so rigid with a partner. Still, it’s interesting that neither the WNWDAL nor the OED are even the least bit pliable (sorry …) when it comes to associating fungible with flexible. In fact, none of the dictionaries in the my possession, including my etymological dictionaries, even attempts to bend fungible in this way.

The one place that does link fungible and flexible is Merriam-Webster.com. It defines fungible as

1: being something (such as money or a commodity) of such a nature that one part or quantity may be replaced by another equal part or quantity in paying a debt or settling an account
2: capable of mutual substitution : interchangeable
3: readily changeable to adapt to new situations : flexible

As much as it pains this anachronist to say it, score one for the internet, for it would appear that the content of my reference library and this website are not fungible. Then again, who says Merriam-Webster.com is correct in this instance?

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