The Grammarphobia Blog

A scrutable mystery

Q: I find it inscrutable that I never see the word “scrutable.” Why is this?

A: We don’t see much of “scrutable” these days, but it is indeed a legitimate word.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) says “scrutable” means capable of being understood. It comes from the Latin word scrutari (to search or examine), which also gives us the word “scrutiny.”

“Inscrutable,” which means mysterious or not readily understood, is much more popular. I did some googling and got 1.9 million hits for “inscrutable,” but only 41,900 for “scrutable.”

Nevertheless, “scrutable” has been around for hundreds of years.

The first published reference in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1600, but the citation I like best is from 1856: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in Aurora Leigh, describes poets as democrats “loyal to the low, and cognizant / Of the less scrutable majesties.”

You may be interested in a blog item I had a couple of months ago about words (like “gruntled” and “ruth”) that are usually seen only within other words (“disgruntled” and “ruthless”). If you check out the item, don’t forget to look up the Jack Winter story. It’s really hilarious.

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