A job advertisement from a Scottish university this week asked that applicants should be “facile with numerical programming”. It was obvious enough in context that the university wanted researchers who were good enough at it that they found it easy. Unfortunately, the writer of the ad was almost certainly a good deal better at mathematics than he was at English.
Facile has two main meanings. The much less common meaning, the one the university was employing, is the older of the two. It means something that’s easy to understand, or easily accomplished. At one time it could even imply that a person had good manners, or was courteous or affable — in other words someone whose behaviour was easy or effortless.
The word, and its positive senses, came to us through Middle French from the Latin facilis (so the word is closely connected to our facilitate and facility). When applied to things facilis meant they were easy to do, but applied to people it meant courteous or pliant. It first appeared in English in an early printed book, Caxton’s translation of the Fables of Aesop of 1483.
As always, something thought to be easy was valued accordingly: if it was easy, it couldn’t be important or valuable. So a second meaning grew up, a derogatory one which is now often the first to be cited in dictionaries: something glib that’s superficially convincing but actually simplistic. If you speak these days of a man with a facile intellect, you’re most likely to be saying that he is shallow of mind and specious of opinion. As an echo of the original Latin, it can also mean somebody who is markedly pliant, easily convinced or swayed by the views of others.
Curiously, only two of my many style guides warn about this word. The second edition of Fowler does (though the third doesn’t). But Godfrey Howard is very firm in The Good English Guide: “Although facile means easy and without effort, it always carries with it the negative meaning of superficial ... facile should never be used in a complimentary sense”. Perhaps the other guides are so certain this is known they don’t feel they need to mention it. But it seems to have passed our ad writer by.
I wonder how many people will be tempted to apply, on the grounds that their capabilities with regard to numerical programming are, indeed, as facile as anyone could ask for? That could be a problem for the selection board.