In this short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald there is a sentence:

It was like in the beginning fifteen years ago when they said he had "fatal facility", and he labored like a slave over every sentence so as not to be like that.

I also found this phrase in some old magazine.

I think "facility" in these cases means "inborn ability" or "fluenty at something". And it's "fatal" for some reason. But what does it mean as a whole?


It is not an expression currently in use. It means an ability that one is born with, not one that is learned. Nowadays instead of saying "He has a fatal facilty." we might say "He is naturally gifted".

It comes from the idea that one has a "fate". It is the gifted author's fate to be able to write well.

For example a magazine from 1926 notes

The worst obstacle an artist need fear to encounter is a fatal facility

(a gifted artist will not learn the skills of practice, and so won't exceed their gift)

  • I'm not convinced fatal in this context has any direct connection to the idea that one has a "fate". I think it's just fatal = lethal - but slightly hyperbolic, so it's OED's definition 7: Causing serious harm, disastrous, gravely mischievous. And I think facility = simplicity (as per facile = simple), which makes much more sense in contexts such as The language has a fatal facility of rhyme, which makes it easier to write in verse than in prose. – FumbleFingers Aug 8 '18 at 17:53
  • In fact, I think this usage (which was apparently widespread in late C19) clinches the matter: The fatal facility of recourse to the public-house has been greatly increased, making it extremely difficult for multitudes of persons, in view of the hardships of their lives, to avoid or resist intemperance. Clearly that usage carries the sense of the fact that it's so easy to drink in pubs is very bad for people's health. – FumbleFingers Aug 8 '18 at 18:04
  • (So on reflection I'm not just gonna say "I'm not convinced". I now actually think this answer is wrong. Sorry! :) – FumbleFingers Aug 8 '18 at 18:05
  • Maybe "fatal facility" has two distinct meanings? – DanielBRO Aug 8 '18 at 18:35
  • @FumbleFingers You are wrong. Fatal facility here means natural ability, and nothing else. It has no direct connection to "fatal" meaning lethal (except a they both derive from fate) Please see the example in the linked magazine which clearly defines the expression. – James K Aug 8 '18 at 18:41

I am always sorry to disagree with @JamesK and very rarely do so, but his answer does not to my mind really explain what might be fatal about facility. The point is that if you find that you can do something in some field of endeavour (write, draw, understand mathematical concepts) without any effort at all, you may fall into the temptation that you need never exert yourself in that field again. In that sense your 'facility' (that is, your easy ability to do well) is "fatal" to your ability to do exceptionally well in that field. You may find that you are 'coasting' - moving along at high speed without exerting yourself. If only you worked harder, how brilliant you could be!

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