To ‘avail’ isn’t to give, offer, or make available

Wednesday March 18 2020

Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed. Every day I come across a claim such as ‘The minister availed his speech to the Press.’ FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP


If you can’t resist it, I affirm that the verb “to avail” exists. But it does not mean “to give” or “to offer”.

Every day I come across a claim such as ‘The minister availed his speech to the Press.’ The minister did no such thing. What the writer means is that he gave each journalist a copy of the (written) speech. In short, he gave them permission to use it. To make use of – that is the meaning of the verb “to avail”. Thus, it was not the minister who “availed” anything.

It was the journalists who availed themselves – made use – of the minister’s speech. What the minister did was: he made his speech available to the journalists. The journalists then availed themselves of it. That is, they accepted it, exploited it, benefited from it.

To reiterate: To offer somebody something is to make (it) available to him. On accepting it, the latter puts the thing to some use. He avails himself of it by exploiting its value. Thus, to make available and to avail are two different, if complementary, actions.

The giver makes available (offers or allows somebody the use of something). The taker then avails himself of (uses, benefits from, derives value out of ) the thing. “Value” is the catchword here. The thing can be subjected to both actions because it has what economists call a use value.

We learn in the ABC of economics that money is always accepted because it has a conventional use value.

I take it from you because I know that anybody else will take it from me. It is the universal medium of exchange. That is its use value.

One person makes it available (by buying something). The second (the seller) avails himself of it in the same process that he makes it available (by buying something from a third person), and so on, as long as the market system prevails.

Prevails? Indeed. For avail, prevail and value have the same etymology. Avail entered the English language in the 13th century as availon, from vailen, taken from the French valoir (“value”) and the Latin valere (“to be worth your weight”).

When a thing is weighty, strong and ponderous, we may say that it is availing (adjective) or of avail or valuable.

When an idea becomes superlatively strong, weighty or ponderous, we say that it is predominant, preponderant or prevailing. It is the most available (adjective), i.e., most obtainable, accessible, at hand, at your disposal, usable, of immediate value.

This accessibility, usability or profitability is called availability or availableness. As any Cabinet minister will tell you, the dirt road passing through your village will be tarmacked “when funds are available”.

Ask him whether a hospital will be built in your area and he will be snappy: “Definitely, subject to the availability of funds.”

But wise people will not bank on his vow because they know that it is completely useless, profitless, unavailing, of no avail, valueless.

Mr Ochieng is a veteran journalist