Monday, September 12, 2011

Guest Post -- Jinny's Pet Word: Inflammable

My Pet Words guest today is Jinny from SkyInk. I just love her choice! I always have to stop and think about this counterintuitive word -- so much that I've excised it from my personal vocabulary. Maybe it's time I added it back again. I have a similar problem with the word pitted -- do pitted pruned have pits?

Inflammable isn't exactly a favourite word of mine, but it's a word that I find extremely interesting, and there's some small smug satisfaction I get from correcting people who think it means the opposite of flammable.

I first heard of the word inflammable when I was really young and watching an episode of The Simpsons. I can't remember the specifics, but the characters were talking about some sort of gas that was contained in a tank in a building that was on fire. One of the characters said, “It's okay, the tank says it's inflammable.” This made complete sense to me because the affix in- usually means it can't be touched or affected. Like invulnerable. Or indestructible.

Of course, one second later, another character performs the punchline by informing the first that inflammable actually means the exact same thing as flammable. For some reason, whenever I think of the words inflammable and flammable, that Simpsons episode always comes back to mind.

Inflammable, to me, is a really interesting word because it doesn't follow the pattern that my other example words (indestructible, invulnerable) exhibit with the in- affix (and I guess I'm a bit nerdy in that I am fascinated by affixes and suffixes, and even pseudo-affixes – for example, have you noticed how a lot of words that have to do with light or shiny things begin with gl-? Like glow, glisten, glimmer, etc.) Not only that, it has the exact same meaning as flammable, which has a much clearer meaning. Both are adjectives that mean easy to burn. Most would assume they mean the opposite of one another. Well, what's the deal with these two similar words?

Inflammable appears to actually be the older word, if we compare when the two words were first used. It comes from the Latin word inflammābilis. The in- part of the word really isn't meant to be an affix at all, it's just part of the word. -able is a suffix though. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as, “Capable of being inflamed or set on fire; susceptible of combustion; easily set on fire” and its oldest recorded use is from 1605, from a book called The practise of chymicall, and hermeticall physicke.

Flammable also has its roots in Latin, flammāre. According to the OED, its first recorded use was 1813, from a book called Nature of Things.

So it seems that inflammable is the “traditional” word, and flammable was picked up later. According to the Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, people tried to replaced inflammable with flammable in the 1920's for fear that the ordinary masses would mistake inflammable to mean unable to burn. It's a legitimate safety concern, I would think. Imagine someone picking up a can of hairspray or something similar and seeing the word inflammable printed on it. What's their first thoughts going to be? “Oh I guess hairspray can't be set on fire.” That's how accidents happen :(

Of course, then linguists got all upset that other people are trying to “mess around with the language”, so to speak. I guess that's why we still have both words in use, and I guess that's why some people are still confused. Although I just checked my cans of hairspray and other inflammable/flammable products and they all use the word flammable instead. So maybe the linguists aren't winning? Heh. But now you know they are both the exact same meaning and that the in- is not an affix. Go spread the word!

Thanks so much for visiting my blog, Jinny!


Jinny ( said...

Thanks for the guest post invitation! :) It was fun writing this!

Catherine A. Winn said...

Good post! Just left a little something for you over at my blog.

Shanan, The Book Addict said...

LOL. I think I may be guilty of misusing the word inflammable--but I think anytime I use it now I will have to think about it and remember the Simpson's clip. :)