Word of the Week: Practicable


So, [stuff deleted] and how about practicable?

This is a word that has lodged innocently in my brain for years without my ever having asked, Uhm, how is that different from practical, anyway?

I don’t know about you, but I associate practicable with the often-elegantly composed written orders given by latter-day generals. As in:

To Gen. So-and-So, On this date instant, move your troops hither over the river and through the woods thither.

And in my mind, these orders are frequently concluded with the qualification, “if practicable.” As I read along, merrily, I dismissed this as an 19th-century anachronism that 20th-century minds had neatly erased.


Of course, the truth is practicable has a meaning that is usefully distinct from the meaning of practical, though it took me four reference books to iron the whole thing out. For one thing, Webster’s Fourth rather unhelpfully uses practicable in its definition of practical and practical in its definition of practicable, and so I will save all that for a postscript.

Bryan A. Garner’s “Modern American Usage” is much more helpful. He writes that “practicable = capable of being accomplished.” Practical, he adds, is “manifested in practice; capable of being put to good use.”

Even better, the august Theodore M. Bernstein writes in “The Careful Writer,” “practicable is capable of being done; what is practical is what is capable of being done usefully or valuably.”

That is it, in a nutshell.

Speaking of nutshells, H. W. Fowler, in “Modern English Usage,” is worth mentioning if only for this pep talk: “Each word has senses in which there is no fear that the other will be substituted for it.”

He refines the point by saying, soothingly, “safety lies in remembering that practicable means capable of being effected” and practical is “adapted to actual conditions.” And he goes on to add an interesting, and telling, corrective example from an unknown-to-me source related to the long-contentious British involvement in Ireland.

“‘But to plunge into the military question without settling the Government question would not be good sense or practicable policy.’ …The policy was certainly practicable, for it was carried out; [but] the writer [meant] to say it was not suited to the conditions, i.e. practical.”

(Saints, preserve us.)

One famous example, and just as telling for our purposes, from our own history can be found at the Battle of Gettysburg. As you will no doubt remember, it was 1863 and the rebels had embarked on a raid of Maryland and Pennsylvania, for some reason thinking it would all work out.

Overview of the first day of the Battle of Get...

Map of the Gettysburg battlefield on July 1, 1863. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As the rebels get to Gettysburg, in south-central Pennsylvania, they find the vanguard of the United States Army, the main body of which had skulked alongside the whole time. There is a skirmish, and while it is happening the rebel commander, Gen. Robert E. Lee, arrives, wearing his impossibly tiny shoes. He can see hills in the distance, south of town, and realizes that if there were rebel troops on those hills, the enemy forces in front of him might be compelled to retreat.

So he sends an order to Gen. Richard S. Ewell, directing that he move his army to the top of what was known locally as Cemetery Hill — and here he adds the phrase of the day — “if practicable.”

Now, Gen. Ewell and his men have just arrived, and some sources say they all were worn down by the July heat. Probably they were keen to start frying up scrapple, picking sour apples and dancing a jig.

In any case, Gen. Ewell did nothing.

The United States Army, realizing what Gen. Lee had observed, quickly reinforced Cemetery Hill and the now famous elevations that string along farther to the south — Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top and Big Round Top. And so what you have is, instead of the rebels defending the hills, the rebels were compelled to attack them. This set the stage for the turning point of the war.

Richard S. Ewell, Confederate general in the A...

Richard S. Ewell, trying to remember where he put his dictionary. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is probably hard cheese to point out here that Gen. Ewell’s mistake was to have confused practicable — can Gen. Ewell move his troops to the hill — with practical —  do the actual conditions recommend such an action. Let me tell you, there was many a rye-fueled, slack-jawed argument about that after the war.

It did not help Gen. Ewell’s reputation that just two months earlier he had replaced Gen. Thomas Jackson, who was killed in the Battle of Chancellorsville. Gen. Jackson — his nickname was Stonewall, he had only one arm, he spewed Bible verses — was, to say the least, a hard act to follow.

Indeed, referring to Gen. Lee’s “if practicable” order, the historian James M. McPherson writes in “Battle Cry of Freedom,” (Page 654 of the Ballantine Books paperback, 1989)

Had Jackson still lived, he undoubtedly would have found it practicable. But Ewell was not Jackson. Thinking the enemy position too strong, he did not attack — thereby creating one of the controversial “ifs” of Gettysburg that have echoed down the years.


These words are both adjectives. Webster’s Fourth defines practicable as “of, exhibited in, or obtained through practice or action: practical knowledge; usable; workable; useful and sensible: practical proposals; designed for use; utilitarian.” Practical is defined as “that can be done or put into practice; feasible: a practicable plan; that can be used; usable; useful: a practicable tool.”

Updated, July 3:

He was to attack the high ground if it “was practicable.” But then, to add to the confusion, Lee reiterated his previous order not to bring on a general engagement until the rest of the army had arrived. This contradiction put Ewell in a dilemma.

via General Ewells Dilemma – NYTimes.com.


Garbonzos I Have Loved


The inspiration is one of my favorite snacks sadly, not shared by my assistant, yet, carrot sticks dipped in hummus and here I tried to deconstruct the two things only to reconstruct them better.

via carrot soup with tahini and crisped chickpeas | smitten kitchen.

I made this soup, which is delicious, if standard, and became fully converted to the camp of Chickpeas Make a Great Snack. There are not a lot of people in the camp, I know. But I am just saying, if you get a post card from me with a funny postmark, don’t get alarmed.

Roasting chickpeas on a cookie sheet can be a little tricky. The little guys can turn black in a hurry. But the end result, with just a little garlic and oil, is all kinds of potato-chip hearty. They are a perfect compliment to soups, as in the above excerpt; but it is enough to simply eat them by the greedy handful.

I am not making that up.

The Television-Fortified Mind

Now, however, the U.S. Supreme Court may slam shut the door on [civil suits brought by foreign citizens], relying in part on the argument that other countries do not offer such relief.

via The Long Arm of International Law | Foreign Affairs.

Is it a bad thing that I refuted, in my head, convincingly, an argument for stronger global war-crimes courts merely by referencing an episode of “The West Wing”? (See gated excerpt of the article above.)

I mean, yes. Of course, it is. But…

The roots of the argument, by a very smart person (Pierre-somebody) writing in the March/April 2013 issue of Foreign Affairs, are in the usefulness of the so-called Alien Tort Statute in the United States, which says, generally, that people who are not Americans can sue other non-Americans about non-American things in American courts. Continue reading

Last Week’s News: A Parade of ‘Misfits’

In the spirit of Internet immediacy, here is a review of what I was reading online last week.

From your 120 subscriptions, over the last 30 days you read 5,361 items, clicked 238 items, starred 1 items, and emailed 15 items.


Devotional No. 9


(Photo credit: acb)

“Since its founding, the United States has had an intimate relationship with clandestine commerce, and contraband capitalism was integral to the rise of the U.S. economy.”

via Gangster’s Paradise: The Untold History of the United States and International Crime.

…the physical savagery the radical dissenting Protestant settlers of America wreaked on the original inhabitants, and the intellectual savagery of their polemical attacks on the church…

via The Shocking Savagery of America’s Early History | History & Archaeology | Smithsonian Magazine.

The South African O. J. Simpson

Mr Pistorius, a Paralympic champion, denies the premeditated murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, 29. His bail hearing has now adjourned after a third day in Pretoria.

via BBC News – Oscar Pistorius detective on attempted murder charges.

I confess that I never liked Oscar Pistorius. I didn’t think anything about his attempt to compete with able-bodied athletes was courageous. But I am astounded by the absurdity of his alibi against charges that he intentionally shot and killed his girlfriend last week.

English: Oscar Pistorius during 2011 World cha...

Oscar Pistorius in 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“I fail to understand,” Mr. Pistorius testified in court, “how I could be charged with murder.” Surely, he is the only one.

According to Mr. Pistorius, he was asleep in the home he shares with his girlfriend when he heard a noise about 3 in the morning and “felt a sense of terror rushing over me.”

Crime, they say and I believe, is a big problem in South Africa. Indeed, one journalist who was a friend of the victim said, “The best case is that he shot her by mistake. And that is a particularly South African mistake.”

But another big problem in South Africa is violence against women.

Experts say that a woman is raped every four minutes in South Africa. Many die at the hands of partners, siblings and friends.

via Cry, the Misogynistic Country – NYTimes.com.

The first thing Mr. Pistorius does is grab his gun. He gets up on his stumps — Mr. Pistorius is a double-amputee — and while checking out his house, he hears a noise in the bathroom. I think many people would have called out, asking if it was their significant other/roommate who was behind the door. Some people would have seen an intruder behind a closed door as a momentary advantage, and taken steps to flee for safety. At least one person, a lawyer for the prosecution, asked, “Why would a burglar lock himself into a toilet?”

Mr. Pistorius, whether he considered these points or not, fired his gun four times.

He testified that it did not occur to him that it could have been his girlfriend making all that noise in the toilet.

O. J. Simpson in 1995.

O. J. Simpson in 1995.

After realizing what he had done, Mr. Pistorius told the court that he tried to kick down the bathroom door with his prosthetic legs. When that failed, he claimed to have used a cricket bat. Now, we are not acquainted with the quality of South African hardware, or with prosthetic limbs, but it beggars belief that either item would make a dent in the bandbox door to my Brooklyn bathroom.

In any case, Mr. Pistorius said his girlfriend was still alive when he finally got the door open. Yet multiple people beat the police to his home, suggesting that calling an ambulance was not the first thing on his mind.

It’s easy to judge in the sober sunshine of a Thursday morning the actions of an admitted gun-loving paranoiac in the middle of the night. But it is hard to forget the grim visage of O. J. Simpson at times like this, especially after an influential detective is conspicuously reassigned and the police admit investigative bungling.

So, what was on Mr. Pistorius’s mind? Perhaps building an alibi that fit pieces of evidence like a history of menacing and reckless behavior, blood on a cricket bat and a victim’s grievious head wounds.

Word of the Week: Commonwealth

So, avuncular (unclelike), saturnine (sluggish), sybaritic (pleasure-loving), antediluvian (primitive), concomitant (accompanying), uxorious (fawning), lucubrate (laborious studying), vulpine (foxlike), fissiparous (fractious), skeuomorph (look it up yourself), obdurate (stubborn), syllepsis (zeugma), parlous (perilous), crepuscular (twilightlike), concupiscent (lustful), cromlech (a formation of megaliths), sacerdotal (priestly), assize (law court), puissant (powerful), legerdemain (trickery) and apercu (insight) and homunculus (dwarf), termagant (nag), unctuous (smug), otiose (useless), punctillio (formality), orotundity (pretentiousness), incarnadined (reddened), [various, from last week] and contumacy (stubbornness) and how about… commonwealth?

I have for some time accepted the yarn that Puerto Rico is a commonwealth.

That is because, of course, Puerto Rico is a commonwealth, or rather it calls itself a commonwealth. And long story short, I rise to a point of information here to say that saying so doesn’t make it so. In other words, sheep don’t have five legs either.

A thorny problem for me at the outset is that the meaning of the word commonwealth is a fairly squishy thing. Webster’s Fourth calls it “the people of a nation or state; body politic,” which is sweet-sounding and comfortable. And if I had my druthers, things would end there. (And this letter would be shorter.)

But Webster’s goes on to add that a commonwealth also is “a nation or state in which there is self-government; democracy or republic,” which seems didactic and unhelpfully broad.

It further adds that a commonwealth is “a federation of states,” as in the Commonwealth of Australia. And, tellingly, “any state of the U.S.; strictly, [those that] were so designated in their first constitutions.” And finally to something that brings us back to something like full circle: “a group of people united by common interests.”

Where does that leave us?

Let me start by raising a delightful trivia question: Which four of the 50 states call themselves commonwealths? (Answer* below.)

While you are thinking about that, a natural next step is to ask, What is the difference between a commonwealth and a state?

In other words, What the heck is going on here, anyway?

As you might have guessed, there is no difference — especially when it comes to the four states referred to above and listed below. All it means is that state legislators, sooner or later, started referring to the state as a commonwealth for some purposes, usually as a finger in the eye to the Brits (i.e., This state was established by the people, not by royally-appointed, tea-sucking half-wits).

As might be already apparent, the distinction in the United States carries with it no legal significance. Indeed, many agencies in all four of the states that use the word “state” in place of “commonwealth,” and I once knew a slick-haired blowhard from Virginia who bragged about Virginia hams and never said the word Virginia without tacking “the great state of” on at the front.

Point of pride is about all you get here.

In Puerto Rico, it is true that the government is organized along different lines than the rest of the states, but it isn’t any more commonwealthy than any place else. And that wouldn’t change if you called it a state or a territory. Or a five-legged sheep.

In fact, the State Department makes it clear (in its Foreign Affairs Manual, Volume 7) that the “term ‘Commonwealth’ does not describe or provide for any specific political status or relationship.” And six years ago, in a report on Puerto Rico’s status, the Justice Department referred to the island’s existing political arrangement repeatedly as a territory of the United States, amplifying its point thusly:

the term appropriately captures Puerto Rico’s special relationship with the united States. The commonwealth system does not, however, describe a legal status different from Puerto Rico’s constitutional status as a “territory” subject to Congress’s plenary authority under the Territory clause “to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory … belonging to the United States.”

Never mind that during its elections last year, voters in Puerto Rico supported a nonbinding resolution to apply for statehood.

Still, as if to underline the confusion, the Stylebook sternly enjoins users from referring to Puerto Rico as “a territory, possession or colony,” adding that “Puerto Ricans are not immigrants or foreign-born.”

Point taken.


There are several other so-called areas of the United States not inside the border of a state. These territories are variously incorporated or unorganized; likewise with commonwealth, the distinctions are difficult (and perhaps unnecessary) to untie. These are: American Samoa, Guam, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and several probably uninhabited islands: Palmyra Atoll, Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, the Midway Islands, Navassa Island and Wake Island.

* The states that insist on being called commonwealths are Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

What You Missed in Today’s Times

“I couldn’t go to bed because I was so excited,” a viewer called niesa36 said on the Dagbladet newspaper Web site. “When will they add new logs? Just before I managed to tear myself away, they must have opened the flue a little, because just then the flames shot a little higher.”

via In Norway, TV Program on Firewood Elicits Passions – NYTimes.com.

But then about two years ago troubling questions began to be whispered. He acted odd. He was thinner. He walked stooped over. He was absent. Was he sick? Or dying? And then the spicy talk about suspicious men trooping in and out of the rectory.Finally, last month’s revelation. The priest was locked up, charged with dealing crystal methamphetamine.

via Msgr. Kevin Wallin’s Swift Fall, to Drug Suspect – NYTimes.com.

“It got me a smart audience of comedy nerds that you want. It kept letting me fail at a diversity of things and try again. I don’t know another theater that would do that.”

via Upright Citizens Brigade Grows by Not Paying Performers – NYTimes.com.


Fool Me Three Times…

…when the lights were turned off, dogs in a room with their human owners were much more likely to disobey and steal forbidden food. The study says it is “unlikely that the dogs simply forgot that the human was in the room”… instead it seems as though the dogs were able to differentiate between when the human was unable or able to see them.

via BBC News – Dogs understand human perspective, say researchers.

Years ago, I had this mystery happen to me. It was real “Hardy Boys” stuff. I was living in a house in a cozy little sort-of enclave of [deleted] that had only one recognized meth dealer, and for some reason I had begun buying butter by the stick.

Butter and a butter knife

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Usually, I would buy real butter in a tub. But one day, like I said, I bought a box of butter sticks. My mother had done this — actually, it was margarine — for years when I was a kid, I imagine because tubs of the stuff had not yet become popular. Or, I don’t know, who knows what she was thinking. For one thing, she never called it margarine; she called it oleo or butter. The point of the story is that my mental image of butter was a stick of it softening on a saucer in the open air of the kitchen, and so what I did next seemed natural to me.

One day, I made a loaf of bread or something and, you know, in planning ahead, I had put a stick of butter on a saucer and set it on the counter. Eventually, I cut a slice of bread and turned to the plate of butter and — it’s gone. I mean, the plate is there but the butter is gone.

Now, when this happened, I didn’t really think twice. I immediately assumed that I had merely meant to set out some butter and had actually forgotten. I walked to the fridge, took out another stick of butter and set it on the saucer. I scraped off some cold butter onto a slice of bread and thought nothing more about it.

Suspect No. 2, as a puppy.

Suspect No. 2, as a puppy.

A few hours later, I thought about having dinner and went back into the kitchen. And I immediately noticed the plate that I had put the butter on was empty. This time, my first thought was confusion. I checked the inside of the fridge, to see if I had put the butter plate in there. I checked the freezer, to see if I was even more absent-minded than I thought I was. I checked the cupboard where I kept the plates. I checked cupboards where there were no plates. No butter. And the mysterious thing was, to my eyes, there was no sign of butter on the plate that was on the counter. The same plate I was sure I had put butter on a few hours earlier.

Now, you might have guessed a dog was involved. As I stood there, bemused, I began to wrench my brain in the direction of suspecting one of my two dogs. Suspect No. 1 was a black mixed-breed too short to reach the counter comfortably — so I say — but Suspect No. 2 was a three-legged golden retriever, about 60 pounds and fairly nimble. Still, I found it hard to believe that she both knew the butter was on the counter — she was nowhere near the kitchen when I unwrapped either stick — and was able to get it off the plate without making any suspicious noises.

Any reasonable person would have endeavored to keep the butter in the fridge from then on. My idea was to see if my dog would do it again. I opened the box, pulled out the last stick of butter and set it on the saucer. Then I looked around to see where my three-legged butter thief was. I checked the front room, my bedroom and then walked back through the kitchen to the basement. She wasn’t down there, either. I came back upstairs and guess what I found on the butter plate? Nothing.

Three sticks of butter. One day. And I never figured out, really, which dog was doing it. Or, you know, if it was some kind of Disney-esque team effort.

Last Week’s News: Wrestling With Disappointment

In the spirit of Internet immediacy, here is a review of what I was reading online last week.

From my 120 subscriptions, over the last 30 days I read 5,299 items, clicked 247 items, starred 0 items, and emailed 13 items.