I’ve looked in accredited dictionaries, but I cannot find any one that defines “docile” as meaning “calm.” I’ve heard and seen “docile” used to mean “calm,” like in “docile people”; and I know that it was used in this way because of the context I saw it in (I don’t remember where I saw this and it’s not verbatim):

“After having been offered complimentary drinks, the customers grew [became?] docile.”

Surely “docile” here does not mean easily taught or easily led or managed. In this context, the only valid definition of “docile” would seem to be “calm.” Where did this usage of “docile” arise from?

(I think a lot of people that use the word believe it means “calm.” I took a survey of about thirty people I know and all of them said they think docile means peaceful or calm.)

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please do not carry on discussions in comments. This is counter to the SE model. Further comments will be deleted without notice. – tchrist Aug 15 '18 at 17:55
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    You state that your example "surely" doesn't mean "easily managed," but that is exactly what that sentence means: the customers received free stuff, and thus became easier to deal with. Can you provide another example to more clearly illustrate your assertion? – sippybear Oct 12 '18 at 22:41
  • "I took a survey of about thirty people I know and all of them said they think docile means peaceful or calm." That's because that is the only thing it has meant in the past century or more. Although, judging by the answers, I think the word calm needs clarifying. We are talking about actions and manners, not inner peace. Thus, some of my young coworkers, who are perfectly manageable, tractable, and teachable, have never for an instant been docile. – Phil Sweet Oct 14 '18 at 0:31
  • Please note that it is the offer of free drinks that initiates the docile behavior. Nothing to do with drinking or being drunk. The offer is being made to mitigate to some screw-up, like not being able to show the pay-per-view MMA fight as advertised. So free drinks until the problem is fixed. Good way to calm the rowdy crowd. – Phil Sweet Oct 14 '18 at 1:19

According to the generally accepted theory, docile entered the English language in the late 15th Century.

It came from the Latin docilis (via Italian or French), which means "easily taught" (from docere ("teach")).

However, in the 18th Century, it came to mean "obedient" and "submissive," and still does today.


  • This doesn’t really answer my question. I appreciate your answer though. – user305707 Aug 14 '18 at 20:09
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    Well, the actual answer is "Never," but I thought I'd elucidate the point. – Ricky Aug 14 '18 at 20:24

In addition to Ricky's answer, it could be argued that the job of a waiter/server is to manage customers and their expectations. Docile customers who are obedient or submissive to the waiter's requests are much more manageable than disobedient customers.

In addition, thesaurus.com gives a number of antonyms for "docile" including:

uncooperative, stubborn, inflexible, unyielding

These are all unpleasant qualities in a customer, and the wording of the sentence implies that the customers were at least some of these things prior to the free drinks. Crucially, it’s implied rather than explicit, which is always more polite. Being rude about rude people is just asking for trouble.


Following on from some of the comments on the question above, I think the usage in the question's sample sentence can best be described as a metaphor. The use of the word "docile" is commonly used in relation to animals. Therefore, it is implying that the customers behaved like animals, but softening the blow by using a word that is associated with good animalistic qualities and that is mildly ambiguous as to whether it always applies to animals or not.


Is 'calm' an accepted meaning of 'docile'?

The most recent editions of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language offer no support for the proposition that "calm" is an established meaning of docile. From Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003):

docile adj {L docilis, fr. docēre to teach; akin to L decēre to be fitting more at DECENT} (15c) 1 : easily taught {a docile pupil} 2 : easily led or managed : TRACTABLE {a docile pony}

In the same dictionary, a usage note comparing docile to obedient, tractable, and amenable offers this further gloss on docile:

DOCILE implies a predisposition to submit readily to control or guidance {a docile child}.

And from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition (2010):

docile adj. 1. Ready and willing to be taught; teachable. 2. Yielding to supervision, direction, or management; tractable. {Latin docilis < docēre, to teach ...}

The narrowness of these definitions does not, of course, mean that people in the wild never use docile to mean "calm"; but it does give a strong sense that such usage is relatively recent and/or rare. If the usage catches on, dictionaries will eventually include the new definition in their entries for docile, but assessing when a meaning has sufficiently caught on is obviously not an exact science.

In the case of docile as "calm," the biggest impediment to acceptance may be that proponents of the new definition have not yet overcome lexicographers' presumption that speakers intend docile in an already established sense—specifically the sense of "tractable" (that is, manageable). In the example in the posted question—

After having been offered complimentary drinks, the customers grew [became?] docile.

—it is certainly possible to read the situation as involving customers who were restive to a point verging on unruliness, and that the round of free drinks restored order and made them manageable once more. In practical terms, their becoming manageable coincided with their calming down—the two things are closely linked in this case—but that doesn't mean that the writer intended docile to mean "calm" rather than "tractable."

Because the Eleventh Collegiate's usage note asserts that docile properly indicates a predisposition to submit to control or guidance, we might argue that it isn't a good word choice in the cited quotation—that a word like cooperative or complaisant (or calm) might be more technically accurate. But on the other hand, "Yielding to ... direction or management" seems to fit the case rather well. Beyond all this, people use words loosely (and without consulting a dictionary) all the time. The unanswerable question is, when do enough people use a word in the same previously non-approved way to give it legitimacy as a new meaning of the old word?

When did 'tractable' emerge as a dictionary-approved meaning of 'docile'?

I was curious about when the original "teachable" meaning of docile expanded to include the later "tractable" meaning, so I checked a bunch of old dictionaries to see what they had to say about docile. The expansion in meaning occurred earlier than I had imagined.

The earliest English dictionary to cover the word is John Bulloker, An English Expositor: Teaching the Interpretation of the Hardest Words Used in Our Language (1616), which acknowledges only the "teachable" sense of the word:

Docill, Easie to bee taught, one that wil soone learne.

Docilitie, Aptnesse, quicknesse of vnderstanding.

A half-century later Edward Phillips, The New World of English Words (1662) indicates that little has changed:

Docility, or Docibility, (Lat.) aptness to learn that which is taught.

But Elijah Coles, An English Dictionary: Explaining the Difficult Terms That Are Used in Divinity, Husbandry, Physick, Philosophy, Law, Navigation, Mathematicks, and Other Arts and Sciences (1676) shows the beginnings of a new meaning:

Docile, teachable apt to learn.

Docilize, make tractable.

Elsewhere in the same dictionary, Coles defines tractable as "easie to be handled." To judge from Coles, then, docile in the sense of "tractable" emerged obliquely, through the verb form docilize. The next phase in the emergence of the new meaning of docile appears in John Kersey, Dictionarium Anglo-Britannicum: or, A General English Dictionary (1708):

Docible or Docile, (L.) Teachable, apt to learn.

Docility, Teachableness, Tractableness.

On one level, Thomas Dyche & William Pardon, A New General English Dictionary (1735) seems to pull back from the "tractability" angle:

DOCILE or DOCIBLE (A.) Easily taught, that learns without Difficulty, capable of being instructed.

DOCILITY (S.) Easiness to learn or be taught, Quickness of Apprehension, Readiness of taking or conceiving Arts and Sciences.

But on another level, "capable of being instructed" suggests not an aptitude but a condition of mind—and one not terribly distant from that implied by tractable.

It remains for Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary Of The English Language (1756) to complete the identification of the new sense of docile:

DOCILE. a. {docilis, Latin.} 1. Teachable ; easily instructed ; tractable. Ellis. 2. With to.

DOCILITY. s. {docilité, Fr. from docilitas, Lat.} Aptness to be taught ; readiness to learn. Grew.

Instances where 'docile' means neither 'teachable' nor 'tractable'

Many instances of docile over the years have applied to domesticated animals, and at times references to the docility of such animals goes beyond suggesting their obedience to suggesting a quality of peacefulness—of tameness in a sense similar to nonaggressiveness. And the continuum from peacefulness to passivity (that is, calm) is not especially long.

One instance where docile seems to mean something much closer to "submissive" or "subservient" than to "teachable" or "manageable" is Lois Beardslee, The Women's Warrior Society (2008):

We need you to be docile. So that Ogitchidaakwe, she becomes docile. Becomes the best docile she knows how. Looks around her for docile. Imitates that docile. Does docile so good she becomes a caricature of docile. White man says, "You actin' all docile like that tryin' to make fun of me? You actin' all docile like that tryin' to draw attention to yourself? Tryin' to make me look like the bad guy told you to be all docile?" And that Ogitchidaakwe, she says no sir and looks down at her feet.

Consider this note on Channel Island foxes in H.M. Menino, Darwin's Fox and My Coyote (2008):

Although they are small and so docile that Gary was able to handle them without sedation, the Island foxes had by default been the top predators on the Channel Islands ever since DDT wiped out the bald eagles.

The sense here appears to be "tame or gentle" or, in Elijah Coles's words, "easie to be handled"; but even so, one might very easily replace docile with calm without raising most readers' eyebrows.

Next consider this comment about a type of venomous snake in James Dunnigan & Albert Nofi, Dirty Little Secrets of the Vietnam War (2014):

You could encounter snakes anywhere while in the open or inside. ... In the fields you might encounter the krait. There are several species of these in Vietnam, with the largest one (five feet), the banded krait, so docile that few bites have ever been recorded. But the smaller kraits are keen on biting, and half their victims die, even if they obtain antivenom treatment.

The banded crait isn't so much manageable—soldiers weren't trying to teach the snake tricks or train it to stay out of their tents or even to handle it at all, as Gary did the foxes in the previous example—as nonaggressive. And treating the animal anthropomorphically, we might again characterize its nonagressiveness as "calm." In any event, the authors felt comfortable calling banded kraits as "docile."

Another instance where docile evidently has the sense "nonviolent" is in David Knipe, Vedic Voices: Intimate Narratives of a Living Andhra Tradition (2015):

But the seasonal rhythm always turns to its opposite, the dry period when a stream becomes so docile that cows may saunter and cowpaddle from bank to bank where hundreds of new sand islands have appeared.

Here the only coherent way to read docile is as meaning "slow-flowing and nonturbulent"—in a word, "calm."


Writers and speakers have used docile in the sense of "manageable, tame, or easy to handle" for a long time; but instances in which they have used the word unambiguously to mean something closer to "submissive" or "nonaggressive" or "calm" are harder to find even today—and I couldn't find any such examples from earlier than about 2008. Nevertheless, I would not be at all surprised to see docile in the sense of "tame" soon make the short hop in popular understanding to docile in the sense of "calm," if indeed it has not already done so.

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    For the record, the earliest current OED citation for the sense of something that is easily managed or dealt with is from 1706 James Gardiner tr. René Rapin Of Gardens ɪɪ. 87 — “For docil Cypresses dispos'd with Ease,..More sweetly bound a Plain than all their Kindred Trees.” Now I can’t way for the follow-up question, “When did a docile docent stop being a tautology?” :) – tchrist Oct 13 '18 at 18:58
  • @tchrist. It never was one to begin with. Docent entered English in the late 19th century. Docile had long since quit being used in any tautological sense by that time. I've spent some time trying to find modernish examples of people who searched for a word meaning teachable or trainable and went with docile. They disappear mid-18th century, and I don't think the usage was ever very common before that. There are idioms that persisted until more recent times, though. It's not clear whether anyone not educated in Latin ever productively used the word that way. – Phil Sweet Oct 14 '18 at 11:27
  • 1836 example that makes this pretty clear. books.google.com/books/… – Phil Sweet Oct 14 '18 at 11:31

One of the best ways to understand the meaning and connotations of a word is to see how it is used in literature and in the news. As is evident below, the word docile is used for animals and humans alike. The following excerpts (taken from Fraze.it) demonstrate how docile in the 21st century means subservient and obedient, perfectly confirming @Ricky's answer above.

The OP may have confused calm with passive; a passive person can appear to be calm, but they needn't be content with a situation or feel relaxed and peaceful.

  • Southern women of the time were expected to be delicate, docile and accommodating

  • The dogs are trained to be docile and sit quietly as the students read aloud
    Washington Post (USA)

  • Utilities, retail, Government everyone is out to rape the docile people of Britain.
    The Guardian (UK)

  • Tackies are intelligent, can be broken quickly and are docile for even young riders
    Charlotte Observer (USA)

  • On television, he was surprisingly docile, uncertain and easily intimidated. Harris' withdrawal will have little effect on the remaining Democratic hopefuls, other than to reduce...
    Time.com (USA)

  • ... "there were no staff but all these young people were just patiently queuing for those robot tills, instead of grabbing stuff and running away". It made him think the younger generation was docile, quiescent, conformist. Then the student riots happened.
    This is London/Evening Standard (UK)

  • … who were subservient to whites. The term refers to slaves who worked in white masters' houses. Malcolm X said those slaves were docile compared with those who labored in the fields.
    CNN (USA)

Peasants who were obedient, compliant and, generally speaking, behaved passively are sometimes described as “docile”. In the examples cited, docile, cannot be substituted with “calm” without changing the meaning of the phrase or the author's intention.

  • …whichever one is in power at the moment of a general election is able to secure an overwhelming majority, because the local officials put the tickets of the Government candidates into the hands of the docile peasants, and those who are not docile the gendarmes drive away from the polls. Appleton's Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events of the Years (Vol 1901)

  • This intensive indoctrination went on for almost eighteen hours a day, until at last the formerly docile peasants were ripe for rebellion against their landlords. Parapolitics and Pacification, Vietnam (1967)

  • Despite this and evidently because the burden was too much to bear, the normally docile peasants decided to gather on May 14, 1925, at a village called Nimuchana to chalk out their future programme of action to fight against injustice. Sunset and Dawn: The Story of Rajasthan (1968)

  • Some researchers are more interested in trying to determine the paradox of erstwhile docile peasants becoming revolutionary forces and bringing significant positive changes to their deplorable condition. Nigerian society in the twenty-first century (2007)

As hard as I tried, I could not find the OP's sample sentence: “After having been offered complimentary drinks, the customers grew [became?] docile.”

  1. "complimentary drinks" "docile" customers
  2. "complimentary drinks" "docile" passengers

The closest I found was in a review from Trip Advisor

The staff struck the right balance between friendly and efficient - and we were entertained by their skill handling of a party of 8 woman - who can be far more of an issue than docile drunk blokes!

Complimentary drinks were offered at the end of the meal - and the price was very reasonable.

In that context, I would say that docile is used to contrast the loud and disruptive behaviour displayed by the eight drunk women to that of men who drink themselves into a stupor, which Oxford Dictionaries define it as: “a state of near-unconsciousness or insensibility.” The complimentary drinks offered by the staff were either a "thank you for being patient" gift to the diners present in the restaurant, or a means to appease anyone who might have been disgruntled and annoyed by the commotion caused by the party of eight women.

In conclusion, any person who is docile is definitely easier to handle than someone who is argumentative or aggressive.

  • I can't see much change in semantics over the past 200 years, looking at corpora. I'd agree with you in rejecting the OP's assumption about the meaning being different in the example. – jlovegren Oct 13 '18 at 18:46

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