An availing collocation

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Paul Krugman, "The Banks Are Not Alright", NYT, 10/18/2009:

Mr. Summers still insists that the administration did the right thing: more government provision of capital, he says, would not “have been an availing strategy for solving problems.”

Use of "availing" in this way struck me as a new linguistic strategy.  But the OED gives availing as a participial adjective meaning "Advantageous, profitable; of beneficial efficiency", with glosses back to the 15th century:

c1420 Pallad. on Husb. I. 562 To faat hem is avayling and plesaunte. 1850 MRS. BROWNING Substitution Poems I. 327 Speak Thou, availing Christ! 1862 RUSKIN Unto this Last 118 A truly valuable or availing thing is that which leads to life with its whole strength.

And availingly is glossed as "In an availing manner; so as to avail or profit", with citations back to 1853:

1853 FABER Ess. Lives of Saints 116 Its intrinsic beauty pleads availingly with the man of letters.

A check at Literature Onine reveals that availing-the-adjective was a favorite of the Methodist leader Charles Wesley, whose hymns included phrases like "the much-availing prayer", "his all-availing prayer", "his blood's availing plea", "my faith's availing cry", and so on.

However, the string "an availing" is not otherwise found in the NYT's index since 1981; nor is "availing strategy". Nor is it found in the current Google News index, other than in Krugman's column and in Ronald Orol, "Summers: 'Time has come' for deep change for banks", MarketWatch, which quotes Summers at greater length:

Responding to a question about whether more capital should have been injected into banks during the height of the crisis, Summers said there is no evidence now that the U.S. should have poured larger amounts of capital into banks. He argued that the government's massive capital injection into American International Group Inc., a $190 billion injection in exchange for an 80% government stake, was not a model for troubled banks.

"Whatever you thought about actions of last spring, now you have to be more comfortable that the right thing was done," Summers said. "I am not struck by anything we have observed [since the Spring] that a systematic government effort to do for more financial institutions like what was done for AIG – and to do that as a matter of choice rather than as a matter of necessity – would have been an availing strategy for solving problems."

Nor is "an|the availing" found in the 100-million-word BNC corpus, nor in the 400-million-word COCA corpus.  However, I did find an example of "an availing" in a 1922 letter to the editor of the NYT about faith healing:

This work is not at all in conflict with that done by physicians. Not until every living soul has an availing faith can doctors be safely done away with.

So where has availing-the-adjective been keeping itself for the past 80-odd years? And how did it make the transition from faith to finance? Has Larry Summers been reading himself to sleep with the Lives of the Saints? Or is "an availing strategy" an availing collocation in the upper reaches of finance, education, or government, at levels so rarefied that mere journalists have missed it until now?


  1. empty said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 9:27 am

    Perhaps some people who were always a little embarrassed by "viable strategy" are happy to adopt "availing strategy" instead.

  2. Mr Fnortner said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 9:55 am

    I predict that, once it the word makes the rounds, it will become an availing shibboleth granting its user more cachet than he or she deserves, and its meaning will drift from "advantageous or beneficial" to simply "handy".

  3. Janice Huth Byer said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 10:07 am

    "Availing" entails a distinction lacking in the perhaps low-church "abiding". Although a cynic like me might deem the latter, meaning "long-term" a more honest descriptor of the strategy in question, the former is more politically astute and, I'd say, a credit to Summers' erudition. It'll be interesting to see if it's picked up by journos and pols for wider use.

  4. Dhananjay said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 10:50 am

    It struck me as a novel usage as well, but probably because an attributive present participle suggests a disposition when the verb is not obviously intransitive. But since my paradigm frame for 'avail' is not the intransitive use, but rather the reflexive 'avail oneself of'+X construction, I couldn't immediately figure out what the disposition meant. Consider "a giving man" vs. "a sleeping man". The most easily recoverable meaning for the former is a man who is wont to give, a generous man, whereas for the latter, the man is simply asleep. Accordingly "an availing strategy" suggests a disposition to avail, but because I don't have an intransitive usage readily available (ha), and it's difficult to extract the right kind of disposition from the reflexive construction, I didn't come to this conclusion naturally. My suspicion is that Summers has the not-so-uncommon if fairly literary intransitive use in his competence and used it as a participle, rather than that he has a distinct adjective 'availing'.

  5. Karen said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    I got it through another somewhat opaque usage that is idiomatic for me: it availed him nothing (or naught).

  6. Karen said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 10:58 am

    Which, I meant to say, is a transitive use…

  7. Jonathan Lundell said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 11:03 am

    There's a relatively well-known intransitive use of the verb in the KJV James 5:16. "The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much."

  8. Philip said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    What about the "Alright" in the headline?

  9. Zwicky Arnold said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 11:44 am

    Philip asks: "What about the "Alright" in the headline?" ("The Banks Are Not Alright")

    Surely an allusion to the song by (and documentary about) The Who, "The Kids Are Alright" (a title that has been widely played on as "The Kids Are Not Alright").

  10. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    Google only has 8 hits for "unavailing strategy," but nonetheless it seems possible that unavailing is used more frequently (or in a broader array of contexts) than availing as an adjective (perhaps more commonly in a construction that such-and-such is unavailing than an unavailing such-and-such), such that the Summers use is a backformation rather than Wesleyan revival. I'm pretty sure I have myself used "unavailing" in legal writing (as a pejorative characterizing arguments advanced by the other side) but not "availing." Relatedly, I do have the sense of "avail" and its derivatives (but not "unavailing") as frequently having a religious/ecclesiastical or perhaps pseudoreligious (as in the Ruskin quote above) feel, as witness not only the examples above but the old ecclesiastical joke with the punchline "There may be salvation outside the Episcopal Church, but no gentleman would avail himself of it."

  11. Craig Russell said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 12:00 pm

    I assume Philip was referring to the spelling "alright" as opposed to "all right". Don't know why, but the one-word version of the spelling really bugs me, non-prescriptivist though I try to be. I think it's cataloged in my brain alongside "alot" for "a lot". I know you could show me a zillion uses of this spelling in legitimate sources (including this one), but language rage is not a logical affliction.

  12. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 12:01 pm

    Further to Prof. Zwicky, there's also a separate snowclone out there of The Kids Are All X — you can find numerous examples by googling: "the kids are all" -right.

  13. dw said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    Anyone know the meaning of the first OED quote: "To faat hem is avayling and plesaunte."?

  14. fiddler said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 1:02 pm

    AZ writes in reply to Philip, "Surely an allusion to the song by (and documentary about) The Who, "The Kids Are Alright" (a title that has been widely played on as "The Kids Are Not Alright")."

    This morning the title has been changed to "The Banks Are Not All Right."


  15. dr pepper said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

    I'm more famiiar with the [hrase "to no avail".

    [(myl) Right, you and everybody else, since Google estimates 36.7 million web hits for it.]

  16. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

    @dw: the same quotation is given to illustrate the transitive verb "fat", meaning to fatten up. In my Compact OED (a microprint version of the first edn), it's sense 3. The spelling "faat" is included among the variant spellings, and is dated to the fifteenth century.

    So "to faat hem" means to fatten them up. We don't have enough context to be able to tell why that should be "avayling and plesaunte".

  17. Bob Ladd said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

    The religious connection reminded me of the inspirational Victorian poem "Say not the struggle naught availeth", which is presumably that same intransitive use. So that use is lurking in my mental grammar somewhere. But I would have been as puzzled as Mark by "an availing strategy" if I'd encountered it before reading his post, and I still think his original question – where did "availing" as an attributive adjective/participle go between 1920 and now – is interesting, and not answered by the comments here.

    By the way, you can find the text of the poem on Google, almost equally divided between pages using the spelling naught and those using the spelling nought.

  18. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

    In the sixth edition of The Poetical Works of Arthur Hugh Clough, with an introduction by Charles Whibley (Macmillan, 1913, 1920), the spelling is "nought", and I presume that was also the spelling of all the previous editions from the first of 1862 onwards.

  19. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    On the other hand, Rupert Christiansen in his little book The Voice of Victorian Sex: Arthur H. Clough 1819-1861 (London, Short Books, 2001) quotes the poem as "Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth" and in his select bibliography lists the edition of Clough's poems edited by Frederick L. Mulhauser and published by Oxford University Press in 1974.

  20. Simon Cauchi said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

    Surely Clough's "availeth" is transitive, and its direct object is "nought"?

  21. ACW said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

    The syntax of the stock phrase to no avail is itself obscure. Is avail a mass noun here? What does it mean? From context, it would seem to mean "benefit" or "advantage", but I have never seen it used in a direct-polarity context. Can anyone say, "Compound interest gives a lot of avail to the investor."? Can anybody find any positive use of the noun "avail"?

  22. Jonathan Lundell said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 7:37 pm

    WRT "alright" vs "all right", Krugman has a blog post up on the subject.

    Out of idle curiosity, I was looking at "available". The OED has the (archaic) sense "that may avail" showing up 15C, while the first citation for the modern sense doesn't show up until 1827 (Faraday).

  23. Craig Russell said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 7:50 pm

    Okay, I guess I have to admit that, even though I much prefer the spelling 'all right' in general, the original version of Krugman's headline ("The Banks Are Not Alright") should probably have been allowed to stand because of the reference. Changing it would be as silly as changing a headline that said something like "Honey, I Shrunk The Deficit" to "Honey, I Shrank The Deficit" or "Bill Clinton Ain't Nothin' But A Hound Dog" to "Bill Clinton Isn't Anything But A Hound Dog".

    On an unrelated note: I would now like to register my dissatisfaction with the way The Who spelled the phrase 'all right' in their song/film "The Kids Are Alright".

    [(myl) While you're at it, you should file a complaint against T.S. Eliot for using "alright" in The Waste Land, and against W.H. Auden for a number of infractions, e.g. in his Letter to Lord Byron:

    169 The important point to notice, though, is this:
    170 Each poet knew for whom he had to write,
    171 Because their life was still the same as his.
    172 As long as art remains a parasite
    173 On any class of persons it's alright;
    174 The only thing it must be is attendant,
    175 The only thing it mustn't, independent.

    You should also persuade the O.E.D. to amend their entry for alright, which reads "a frequent spelling of all right".]

  24. Aaron Davies said,

    October 19, 2009 @ 9:53 pm

    @ACW: "to some avail”: 91k google hits; "to great avail”: 93k google hits.

  25. peter said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 3:01 am

    It is perhaps relevant to analysis of Krugman's statement that macro-economists are very familiar with the phrase "countervailing forces", referring to tendencies in an economy acting in a contrary way to the intentions of some policy maker. A Government may cut income taxes, for example, hoping that total consumer spending will then rise, only to have some consumers save their additional income instead of spending it. So Krugman's phrase does not have as much novelty for me as it may for people unfamiliar with the economics literature.

  26. misterfricative said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 9:49 am

    I may well be mis-analyzing this, but I'm having a hard time with the idea of 'avail' being a transitive verb with 'nothing' or 'naught/nought' as the direct object. In examples like 'this will avail nothing/naught', I'd be inclined not to parse 'nothing' and 'naught' as substantive quantities, but rather as adverbial[?], and somewhat archaic, expressions of degree. Which — I think — explains why I'd be happy to say 'avail not at all' (or 'avail much' or 'avail little') but not 'avail zero'.

    Merriam-Webster has 'avail' as a transitive verb, but in their example sentence, 'his efforts availed him nothing', it seems to me that the direct object is 'him', not 'nothing'. (So for me, the syntactic equivalent would be 'his efforts helped him not at all' as opposed to 'his efforts gained him nothing'.)

    [(myl) On the usual analysis, him in "…avail him nothing" is an indirect object, analogous to him in "give him nothing".

    To see the reason for this, consider that "*…help him nothing" is not a good way to say "…help him not at all".]

    On a side note, I do in fact quite often hear 'avail' being used in transitive constructions. On a local radio station there's a [native US English speaking] DJ, who routinely says things like 'Call in now to avail these tickets.' This just sounds flat out wrong to me, but I have a sneaky feeling that there may be others out there who are using 'avail' in the same way.

  27. J. W. Brewer said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    I just happened to notice that a judicial opinion issued earlier this year in a case in which I was previously professionally involved referred to "Defendants' availing arguments," by which the judge meant arguments that he had found persuasive. That opinion doesn't seem to be available online for free (and subject to further expansion of the cool-sounding database Prof. Liberman is building, good searchable collections of lower-federal-court decisions are generally not free). But googling found another recent instance (2007) of a federal judge referring to "availing arguments." (bottom of p. 12 of the opinion) Given that "unavailing arguments" is a phrase orders of magnitude more common in legal discourse, this is consistent with the hypothesis I advanced in an earlier comment that "availing" is newly back-formed from "unavailing" (i.e., it means "not unavailing") rather than a revival of the ancient and oft-religious usage that somehow went underground for most of the past century. It strikes my eye and ear as about as jarring as using "couth" to mean "not uncouth."

  28. peter said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 4:08 pm

    "availing" (i.e., it means "not unavailing")

    Perhaps this is so in law, but the most serious and bitter controversy in 20th century pure mathematics arose over whether "not false" meant the same as "true". Most mathematicians would now regard the decision to regard these two phrases as having precisely the same meaning as a matter of personal assumption, being adopted on some occasions (ie, for some axiom systems) and not on others.

  29. Kevin Dickinson said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

    Once a word gets trapped in a vestigial cliché, it's often hard to extract and place in new contexts. I've only ever seen "avail" in "to no avail," which is where Krugman probably pulled it from. Kudos to him for instilling an old word with new life. I like his usage.

    [(myl) Credit where credit is due: it was Summers, not Krugman, who spoke about "an availing strategy". Krugman just quoted him.]

  30. misterfricative said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 7:44 pm

    Apologies for persisting with this, but in fact '…help him nothing' doesn't strike me as wrong so much as archaic. (And a google search found this instance on the first page.)

    [(myl) Kudos for finding an example. I'm not sure what to make of it — maybe it's a construction with help by analogy to avail? There are no genuine examples of "help him nothing" at Literature Online — I mean other than things like

    … Neither God
    Nor Greek will help him. Nothing will help that man.

    In contrast, "avail him nothing" gets 25 genuine hits in Literature Online, plus 16 more in EEBO.]

    I think it's also relevant here that in the expression 'nothing loath', you can replace 'nothing' with 'not at all', and you can replace 'loath' with 'reluctant', but you can't replace both without producing an expression ('nothing reluctant') that sounds about as wrong (or archaic) as '…help him nothing'. The point being that even if this double substitution produces an expression that sounds strange to modern ears, nevertheless, 'nothing' is still functioning as an adverb in 'nothing loath'. So — even though 'loath' is an adjective and 'avail' is a verb — surely it must at least be possible that 'nothing' is functioning as an adverb in phrases like '.. avail him nothing'?

    For the first point — and I should say that I'm even more uncertain about my argument here — in examples such as 'give him nothing', I agree that 'him' is an indirect object, but there [always?] seems to be an implicit preposition that can be 'unpacked', as it were: 'give nothing to him'. But this doesn't happen with 'this will avail him nothing' —

    * This will avail nothing for him.

    * This will avail nothing to him.

    * This will avail nothing by him.


    (I think 'this will avail nothing with him' is OK, but the sense is quite different from 'this will avail him nothing'.)

    I have a terrible feeling that I must be missing something here, and I'm more than happy to be set right on all this, but that's how it looks to me at the moment.

  31. nbm said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 9:25 pm

    It would be more understandable were Summers a Yale man rather than associated with Harvard, "for," as the song tells us, "time and change cannot avail / To break the friendships formed at Yale."

  32. Craig Russell said,

    October 20, 2009 @ 9:36 pm


    I'll repeat myself from my first comment:

    I know you could show me a zillion uses of this spelling in legitimate sources (including this one), but language rage is not a logical affliction.

    [(myl) I wasn't counseling logic, just giving you some additional reasons to be upset.]

  33. misterfricative said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 1:35 am


    A few more pages down in the regular google search, there's “[i]t will help [him] nothing to plead [his] innocence” (ref).

    The original Shakespeare is in the first person, and it's from one of Buckingham's speeches in the opening scene of Henry VIII

    It will help me nothing To plead mine innocence

    [(myl) Good one. This seems to be the OED's sense help "2.a. trans. To benefit, do good to; to be of use or service to, to profit. Obs.", a meaning that's rather close to avail "3. trans. (the obj. was at first dat.) To be of use or advantage to; to benefit, profit; to help, assist". In the case of help, the person helped was also in the dative in ME. So I continue to think that in both cases, this is a ditransitive construction, i.e. "help me nothing" is quite like "give me nothing".

    On the other hand, the OED does have a sub-entry for nothing as an adverb, and specifically cites "2. Qualifying a verb. Now chiefly in certain phrases, as nothing daunted, to avail (a person) nothing". The citations (other than the fixed phrases) are mostly 16th c. and before, but they give e.g.

    1788 J. PRIESTLEY Lect. Hist. V. lxii. 307 An aristocracy however differs nothing from a despotism.

    and also (!)

    1866 DUKE OF ARGYLL Reign of Law ii. 57 It helps us nothing in such a difficulty, to say that [etc.].

    So maybe you're right!]

  34. misterfricative said,

    October 21, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    Cool. I'll settle for a 'maybe' garnished with an exclamation point. As for 'naught'… I think I'll quit while I'm ahead.

  35. Graeme said,

    October 24, 2009 @ 6:44 am

    The phrase in question is diarrhoea.

    Why didn't he just say: '… would have solved problems.'?

  36. nbm said,

    October 24, 2009 @ 3:02 pm

    I came across a positive, transitive sense of "avail" ("given for use") yesterday in Padgett Powell's new novel, The Interrogative Mood.

    "If you were availed a high-tech gas balloon and provided a little instruction and told you had clearance to take off, would you take off?"

    I would note that there are quite a few rather uncomfortable or jarring (I hesitate, in this crowd, to say "incorrect") constructions in the book, which is, yes, composed entirely of questions.

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