Knowing that drinkable refers to safe to drink, why do we often say drinking water in stead of drinkable water?

I find potable water (i.e.water fit/ safe to drink) synonymous with drinking water. So, I wonder why it shouldn't be called drinkable.

  • Lots of water is drinkable without being drinking water. Commented Jan 13 at 3:43
  • 4
    "drinking" means "intended for drinking". Like "cooking wine" vs. "drinking wine".
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 13 at 5:38
  • Setting nuance aside for a moment, very literally, all water is 'drinkable'. What it does to you after drinking it is another question. Conventionally, 'potable' concerns the second question. Commented Jan 13 at 8:59
  • @Barmar, your comment is the answer. Would you like to post it as such?
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 13 at 20:16
  • @jsw29 I think Edwin's answer is similar, and more detailed.
    – Barmar
    Commented Jan 14 at 0:08

1 Answer 1


The string 'drinking water' is a compound (or very strong collocate); it is given in most dictionaries, though it is inadequately defined:

  • Drinking water [uncountable noun] is water which it is safe to drink. [Collins]
  • Drinking water is water that is clean enough for people to drink. [Merriam-Webster]
  • Drinking water or potable water is water that is safe for ingestion, either when drunk directly in liquid form or consumed indirectly through food preparation. [Wikipedia]

But notice the sense used by the World Health Organisation, which cuts across this definition:

  • Inadequate management of urban, industrial and agricultural wastewater means the drinking-water of hundreds of millions of people is dangerously contaminated or chemically polluted....

  • In 2022, globally, at least 1.7 billion people use a drinking water source contaminated with faeces. Microbial contamination of drinking-water as a result of contamination with faeces poses the greatest risk to drinking-water safety. [WHO; 2023]

And similarly' in an article by Ryan Felton:

This is the default sense, I'd say:

  • Water that is intended for, set aside for, provided for and used for drinking by humans, often but not always monitored for purity and treated to ensure this.

So drinking water is an established lexeme, however ambiguously it is used. 'Drinkable water' would mean potable (safe-to-drink) water. (Even here, there may be grey areas ... how safe is 'safe'?) Sadly, not all drinking water is drinkable.

And as jsw29 points out, one can (usually far from 'civilisation') drink perfectly drinkable water that is hardly regarded as drinking water.

  • 1
    The cases of contaminated drinking water show that drinking water (water intended for drinking) is not always drinkable water (safe to drink). It may elucidate the distinction further to note that drinkable water is not always drinking water either (e.g. the water of some pristine lake in the wilderness may be so clean that it is safe to drink, but nobody intended it for drinking). Incidentally, one wonders why drinking-water is hyphenated in the WHO document.
    – jsw29
    Commented Jan 14 at 17:18

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