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Now, on to imponderable and impondérable:

In French, the adjective impondérable dates from 1795 and can be an adjective or a noun, but in both cases the meaning is the same. The impondérable is what has no weight, which can’t be weighed, and thus figuratively, the results of which can’t be weighed in advance.

des facteurs impondérables --- factors which can’t be evaluated in advance, imponderable factors (adjective)
les impondérables de la vie --- the things that can happen in life without explication (noun)


In English, as in French, imponderable is either an adjective or a noun and means difficult or impossible to estimate, to weigh in advance.

There are too many imponderables. (too many things we can’t know in advance) --- (noun)
There are too many imponderable factors. --- (adjective)


For the English word imponderable to mean of very light weight, or having no physical weight, would be an archaic or poetic use of the word.


Historical Side Note:
The French word impondérable was a newly invented term in physics for things that couldn’t be weighed (such as light and electricity). It started out referring to these physical things only, and it wasn’t until many years later that the figurative usage was introduced.

In English as well, imponderable was at first a physics word applied to unweighable things, such as heat, light, electricity and magnetism, but these uses are now obsolete.

Both words originated at about the same time, at the end of the 1700’s, so I can’t tell you which came first. However, as they both came from pondérable and ponderable, which both came from the French pondérer (to weigh), we have to say that the English word imponderable is ultimately of French origin, no matter which imponderable came first.


Interesting Side Note: When I was getting ready to send the book this came from to the publisher, I was reading The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, and came across the following passage:

Archer, who seemed to be assisting at the scene in a sense of odd imponderability, as if he floated somewhere between chandelier and ceiling, wondered at nothing so much as his own share in the proceedings.


This use of imponderability sounds bizarre to our ears, but clearly in 1920, when The Age of Innocence was written, imponderable could have the French sense of weightless (and Edith Wharton obviously expected that her readers would understand it).

I checked the 1913 Webster’s dictionary, and indeed, at this time the first meaning given for the adjective imponderable was still:

“without sensible or appreciable weight”


And imponderable was listed as coming from the French impondérable. The noun "an imponderable" was still only listed as a word from Physics, and referred a substance such as light, etc which was considered without weight. The word was mentioned as being no longer much used.

The figurative sense that we use now when we say “that is still an imponderable” or “there are too many imponderables,” meaning that we can’t judge their effects, wasn’t even mentioned in the 1913 dictionary.


Reflection: It’s interesting to consider how we take for granted that the word imponderable means unknowable. And yet less than a hundred years ago people took for granted that it meant physically weightless. I’ll grant you that you can easily trace the path between them:

what can’t be weighed physically – what has no physical weight – what is weightless

what can’t be weighed physically – the results of which can’t be weighed figuratively – what is unknowable


That doesn’t change the fact that Archer’s “imponderability” meaning weightlessness sounds totally foreign to us, and that our meaning for imponderable meaning unknowable would probably have been totally foreign to Edith Wharton. How many of our words will change their meanings in a hundred years? Probably a lot.


Another Interesting but off the subject observation: If you haven’t already noticed, also look at the use of “assisting” in the above passage from The Age of Innocence. It fits better with the sense of the French verb assister à (meaning to attend, be present at) rather than with the usual current meaning of the English verb to assist, which is to help or aid. In this sentence it apparently means that Archer felt that he was in the audience, observing, as it would mean in French. This meaning is still seen encountered English, but it has become relatively rare.
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