What does fungible mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: fungible.

I’d heard the adjective fungible before but I’d never retained its meaning, perhaps because I’d never had cause to use it myself. I encountered it most recently in the marvellous Michael Pollan book, Cooked. Here is the sentence in which he employed it:

Exquisitely reactive and fungible, bacteria can swap genes and pieces of DNA among themselves, picking them up and dropping them almost as if they were tools. 

The word means “interchangeable” or “capable of being used in place of another.” In the 19th century, it was a word used in law, from Medieval Latin fungibilis, from Latin fungi meaning “to perform.” (The word function has the same root.)

The ultimate fungible item, of course, is money. If you lend a friend $20 you don’t expect to receive the same dollar bills back from him or her — you just want 20 equivalent dollars. Money is fungible whereas clothing is not. If I lend my sister a sweater she’d better give me exactly the same sweater back (clean, thank you very much!) or I won’t be happy.

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