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.


The Dreary Undoing of the Undead

Patos Papa: The Unrealized Dreams of the Undead: “…how many doors must a zombie really break down before you realize it’s just a man (or woman)?”

It is a playful, if only marginally amusing, meme for ordinarily staid authorities to issue coping strategies for the so-called zombie apocalypse. In May, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal government’s white-coated vanguard against wee beasties, tee-hee’d all the way through a rotted-tongue-in-gangrenous-cheek disaster survival guide. Unfortunately, this publicity stunt quickly devolved into a fairly dry reminder merely to stock basic emergency supplies (e.g. water, extra clothing, etc.) and otherwise plan ahead for an evacuation.



Several years ago, Wired.com did the same sort of thing, an even less imaginative primer that unhelpfully gets bogged down in a zoological curation of zombie types, extrapolating backward from various films in a spurt of numbing prose and advising survivors simply to shoot their undead antagonists in the head.


A recent example, possibly first noted by a bizarrely enthusiastic Wired.com correspondent, is an authentic-seeming recreation of a United States Army handbook, made by the Snappy Cow Energy Drink Companyof Wynantskill, N.Y. The Snappy Cow people do an energetic (ha!) job outlining believable methods for identifying and neutralizing zombies, including a detailed discussion of small-unit military tactics.


But even this game effort runs out of steam about halfway through, and a reader would be forgiven for giving up before the end, a woefully incomplete section on terrain and weather and, of course, the Snappy Cow advertisement itself.


The biggest mistake these guides make is wasting space in a discussion of zombie origins and varieties. The truth is, it does not matter how zombies are created (few of the pathologies make any sense, anyway). It only matters that you avoid or disable them. Don’t ever trust an authority that tries to unknot things in any other fashion.


Any worthwhile zombie survival guide will be short and to the point:

  1. In case of zombie apocalypse, the first order of business is to secure space. Determine where the nearest zombies are, and place as many obstacles between you and the zombies as possible. This includes, but is not limited to, barricading doors, covering windows and minimizing noise and other signs of “life.” Rooftops are ideal “secure spaces,” isolated farmhouses are acceptable, but basements without multiple forms of egress are not.
  2. Assess your resources. Locate sources of food and water, and if possible clean clothing, medical supplies and metal tools. In theory, this could be the shortest zombie survival guide ever written, because if you have a secure space to inhabit and you have food and water, your to-do list rapidly drops off into things like whittling and masturbating. This is because it is unlikely, given the natural forces of putrefaction and weathering, that a zombie attack would last longer than a week.
  3. Worst case is the best case. Do not worry if the zombie apocalypse appears to be unnervingly widespread. Fewer human survivors will reduce competition for accessible space and resources, which will make it easier for a hopeful survivor to get squared away. It also strains the carrying capacity of the zombie population  by increasing competition for uninfected humans.
  4. Avoid other survivors. Under no circumstances should you undertake cross-country journeys with a large group of fellow humans, no matter how amiable they appear to be. If you have been unable to secure space or sufficient resources, move cautiously in small groups if not by yourself. Other people cannot, under the stress of a serious (and disgusting) breakdown in the fabric of society, be relied upon to hew to anything resembling altruism.
  5. Save your ammunition. Avoid confrontations with zombies at all costs. Even if well-equipped and in a large group, you are unlikely to be able to neutralize a body of motivated zombies. And, importantly, the zombification process is too unpredictable to risk infection from close encounters. If the immediate threat can be avoided by quick movement or deception, choose that course over knocking heads together.
  6. Sit down, shut up and wait. Simply put, the overall zombie threat is profoundly overstated. Even the most taciturn, apathetic, indolent zombie is deteriorating by the minute, which means that the prospects of a hopeful survivor are constantly increasing. To wit, the vigorous, cranium-craving maniacs of the dark and menacing Zero Hour will be withered and oozing by Day 2. All you have to do is sit back, polish your aluminum baseball bat and let your anaerobic allies do their work.