I've been thinking this for quite a long time now, and while I know it doesn't make outright sense, but please take a minute to digest this question.

Consider the definitions for "disability" given by popular websites:


a physical or mental condition that limits a person's movements, senses, or activities.

OED (second edition)

a. Want of ability (to discharge any office or function); inability, incapacity, impotence. b. An instance of this. (Now rare in gen. sense.)

World Health Organization

Disabilities is an umbrella term, covering impairments, activity limitations, and participation restrictions. An impairment is a problem in body function or structure; an activity limitation is a difficulty encountered by an individual in executing a task or action; while a participation restriction is a problem experienced by an individual in involvement in life situations.


A disability is a permanent injury, illness, or physical or mental condition that tends to restrict the way that someone can live their life.

I have a specific reason for why I think the above three definitions are wrong. The reason is that they are mixing up incapacity along with disability. Incapacity is an umbrella term to refer to any kind of non-ability in any regard, eg: incapacity to cast a vote in elections, incapacity to walk on two legs, incapacity to lick your elbow, etc. Oxford defines it as:

Physical or mental inability to do something or to manage one's affairs.

which matches nicely with the above examples. However, I believe disability is specifically a term made for referring to activities which a normal person can do while the affected ("disabled") person cannot. These websites get the definition right the way I wish it to:

Merriam Webster

a physical, mental, cognitive, or developmental condition that impairs, interferes with, or limits a person's ability to engage in certain tasks or actions or participate in typical daily activities and interactions

Western Australia government

A disability is any continuing condition that restricts everyday activities.

Oxford dictionaries

an illness, injury, or condition that makes it difficult for someone to do the things that other people do.

Certainly, licking your elbow is neither an everyday activity nor what other people do. thus it makes absolute sense to not define it as a disability.

Having clarified my question, I wish to ask if: (1) the aforementioned dictionaries have wrongly defined the term "disability" (2) I have incorrectly interpreted the otherwise correct definitions.

I am a learner of English and have tried to post a properly structured question, so please consider clarifying in comments in case of confusion.

  • The OED (second edition) defines disability as follows: "1. Want of ability (to discharge any office or function); inability, incapacity, impotence. b. An instance of this. (Now rare in gen. sense.)"
    – user3395
    Feb 11, 2018 at 15:32
  • I was trying to tell you that disability doesn't necessarily have to imply a condition which prevents you from doing things most other people can do. The OED is usually considered the dictionary, so I'd refer to it.
    – user3395
    Feb 11, 2018 at 16:13
  • @userr2684291 onestly, from the perspective of a non-native speaker, I don't know what dictionaries are considered the dictionaries. If I am at the library, or reading some dictionary link shared by my colleagues, I'll understand what is written there as it is presented to me. I would not know if I'm supposed to open, read, interpret, and then cross-analyze the meaning given in more than one dictionary for a complete picture. Moreover, then I don't understand the point of having more than one dictionaries in the first place. But, I think this is going off-topic, so I'll stop here. Thanks ^_^ Feb 11, 2018 at 16:18
  • That's not what I was trying to say, but that if you don't know which dictionary is presenting you with the widest range of definitions, choose the one most people consider as such. It's advisable to check multiple dictionaries to elucidate the meaning – but most online dictionaries may add or take a few words which might seem as discrepant and cause confusion, as you've shown.
    – user3395
    Feb 11, 2018 at 16:36
  • 1
    Note that "disability" is often a legal term as well. This means that you'll find that it is specifically defined in law and for the purposes of the law, that legal definition overrides anything that any dictionary might say. Feb 11, 2018 at 17:49

2 Answers 2


You should understand the Oxford definition uses the word "condition", which it defines as

An illness or other medical problem.

So a "disability" is a physical or mental medical problem that restricts ability.

Since the inability to lick one's elbow is not a medical problem, it is not a disability, in the Oxford definition.

But remember that dictionaries are not written by God. They do contain simplifications, omissions and sometimes simple errors. The example sentences help to clarify the meaning. In these cases it is clear that a disability is a problem. It implies a lack of ability in some function that many people would expect to have. Thus the inability to see is a disability. The inability to see in ultraviolet is not.


On one hand, the first definition that you've listed contains the term, um, word "condition" which often has the connotation of illness; so this "definition" does narrow down the sense that inability would have, which is simply not being able to do something. Contrary to what you write, the word "incapacity" isn't the more general term; "inability" is. The second (OED) definition, I would in fact consider somewhat deficient.

On the other hand, dictionaries give post factum description of language as it is used by real people. They do not "define" the meanings of the word in the sense in which a variable would be defined in programming, where it cannot come to contain anything that wasn't "input" into it from the very beginning. (That is why I've put the word "definition" in quotation marks in the previous paragraph.) People will often invest different meanings into the same words, and the more abstract the word, the worse the situation (what is "freedom" or "love"?). A concept has been introduced to describe the smallest unit of meaning: a seme. People (and lexicologists) will argue what semes are contained (or not) in a certain word. E. g., Collins dictionary defines "trendy" as "consciously fashionable", while American Heritage Dictionary defines it as "of or in accord with the latest fad or fashion", and does not mention the seme of consciously being a certain way.

Steven Pinker's The Stuff of Thought opens with a story about how, after 9/11, Larry Silverstein, the leaseholder of the World Trade Center, sued his insurance company for two events (of two skyscrapers having been destroyed), while the insurance company argued that it was one event. The debate hinged on how to understand the word "event": whether it was something physical (and thus there were two collapses of two buildings), or whether it was one attack executed through a single plan. Do we include the seme of "having been plotted" into the "event" or do we not? (The answer will mean whether someone gets $3.5 billion or $7 billion from the insurance company.)

Unfortunately, I don't remember the author of these words, but one linguist once said that the most certain thing that one could say about language is that morphemes hint at a meaning. Language is a marvel that works because we (mostly) mean the same things under the same words. But we often hear (or say), even in everyday conversations, "What do you mean by that?", because sometimes people produce utterances while having only a very fuzzy idea of what they want to say or are saying.

Legal language tends to be more precise, because, as described above, a lot of money can depend on the meaning of certain words. Heck, millions can depend on the absence or presence of a comma.

Now, with respect to how this affects learners. First, it always helps to look at more than one dictionary. As I said, I do consider the OED definition somewhat lacking in precisely the way that you describe. However, the Oxford (first) definition is better, and you as a learner overlooked the connotations of the word "condition" that often means "illness" or some kind of disorder. (In "Burn After Reading", George Clooney's character at a party is trying to project an "I'm-damaged-and-complicated" image, so he claims he can't eat cheese because of "lactose reflux", which isn't a real thing, but anyway, as another person approaches, he says, "I was just telling your husband that I have this condition where I go into anaphylactic shock...". In "The Avengers", Hulk, in his angry-and-green state, falls from the airship into a hangar or something (I don't remember exactly). He then comes to in his normal human form, among all the debris from the roof that was destroyed by his fall, and there is an old man looking at him who says something like (again, I don't remember exactly), "Son, you should get that condition checked out.") So, "condition" is different from "state"; it includes the seme of "illness".

One dictionary will be better than another, but there will not be one single dictionary that will always cover all the options and intricacies of how a certain word can be used; that is why we, learners of foreign languages, will often use words in combinations they cannot be used in, or will overlook a connotation. But this happens also within our native languages. I'm right now preparing a book for publishing, and we are having disputes with the other editor about whether this shade of meaning or that shade of meaning is present or absent in a certain word.

In short, in language, no one can ensure a surefire way to avoid mistakes and always be clear about what one says and/or reads/hears. Uncertainty is a fact both in life and in language. In Russian, there is a saying, "Only an insurance policy can give you a complete guarantee." But then again, that depends on how the insurance event will be defined.


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