Q&A: “Valuable” vs “invaluable”

Coloured gems Q&A valuable vs invaluable

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, something has a lot of value…

Q: Hey AWC, you often use the word “invaluable” in your descriptions.

A: That sounds about right. Lots of invaluable stuff can be learnt from an AWC course!

Q: Sure, so why do “invaluable” and “valuable” mean roughly the same thing?

A: Stay on the line. Your question is valuable to us.

Q: Haha, but yeah, seriously. Is English having a laugh?

A: English is ALWAYS having a laugh – especially at those trying to learn it as a second language. A moment of silence for all those people please…

Q: …

A: Okay, so this one is really all about context. Let’s start with the word “valuable” – turned up in the 1580s as an adjective to describe something of monetary worth or of considerable usefulness. For example, “that painting is valuable” or “your typing skills will be valuable in this job”.

Q: Got it. But it can also be a noun, yeah?

A: That’s right – although that didn’t happen until the 1770s and usually only as a plural to mean things of value. For example, “Store your valuables in the safe when you leave the hotel room.” 

Q: Hmmm, that reminds me of my cousin and her partner who tried to practice safe sex at a hotel. But she got snagged on the handle and accidentally reset the combination.

A: …

Q: So, what about “invaluable”?

A: Well, this word arrived a smidge earlier – about the 1570s – and this is important. Of course, the notable difference is that it had “in–” at the front. This Latin prefix simply meant “not or without”. 

Q: Not valuable? Without value? I don’t think so!

A: This is where context comes riding in on its trusty steed…

Q: Oh, get off your high horse and just explain it in simple terms please!

A: Sure. Remember that this was the 1570s, and the adjective “valuable” was still a decade away. So this new word based itself on the verb of the time, which was “value” – meaning “to estimate the worth of”.

Q: I think I can see where this is going…

A: Using its Latin “in–” prefix to mean without, and adding “–able” on the end – as was common practice for adjectives, we ended up with “invaluable”. Its definition? “Unable to be estimated due to its high worth”.

Q: And then “valuable” came along and ruined it.

A: Well, not entirely. Remember that “valuable” described something that COULD be valued, while “invaluable” was something that COULDN’T be – due to it being too high, not too low. 

Q: You’d think they would have come up with a word for “low value” to avoid all this confusion.

A: They did! By the 1590s, the word “valueless” took up that meaning.

Q: Oh, like “priceless” then?

A: Haha, well played. It also showed up in the 1590s, but for something to be “priceless” it is once again about it being too high to assign a price – much like “invaluable”. Meanwhile, “worthless” is the opposite – an absence of worth.

Q: I’ve seen “priceless” used for something funny too, right?

A: Yes, since the early 1900s, it has had an informal meaning of something being absurd or amusing. “He slipped on the banana peel – it was priceless!” Mastercard has also played on both meanings in its long-running ad campaign that began in 1997.

Q: So is there a “price” adjective similar to “valuable”?

A: It would probably be “pricey” – a word that only came along in the 1930s. Although you’re more likely to go with “expensive” or the somewhat-dated “dear” instead.

Q: So, did “invaluable” ever get confused about its role?

A: Actually it did. There was a time during the 1600s when it made sense beside “valuable” for it to mean “without value” in more of a “valueless” way. But then other adjectives like “inexpensive” came along to fill the gap and it returned to its original meaning.

Q: So, to recap. Something of high value is “valuable”. But if it’s so high in value that you cannot accurately estimate its worth, then it is “invaluable” – not able to be valued. 

A: Exactly!

Q: At the same time, something of a high price is “pricey” or “expensive, yet if it cannot be priced, it’s “priceless”. And of little value is “valueless”, “worthless” or “inexpensive”. 

A: Yeah, English is indeed a nightmare. We are not worthy.

Q: Thanks for this invaluable lesson. It was full of valuable information.

A: Priceless…

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