Thursday, 15 October 2009

It said 'inflammable' so why is it on fire?

The two words flammable and inflammable mean the same thing, they aren't opposites. Unlike 'efficient' and 'inefficient' or 'articulate' and 'inarticulate'.

From the Merriam Webster online dictionary:

Function: adjective
Etymology: Latin flammare to flame, set on fire, from flamma
Date: 1813

: capable of being easily ignited and of burning quickly

Function: adjective
Etymology: French, from Medieval Latin inflammabilis, from Latin inflammare, to inflame.
Date: 1605

1 : flammable
2 : easily inflamed, excited, or angered : irascible

From etymology online:

1340, "to set on fire with passion," fig. use of L. inflammare "to set on fire, kindle," from in- "in" + flammare "to flame," from flamma "flame" (see flame). Literal sense of "to cause to burn" first recorded in Eng. 1382. Inflammable "able to be set alight" is from 1605. Inflammatory "tending to rouse passions or anger" is from 1711. Inflammation "redness or swelling in a body part" is from 1533.

As you can see, 'flammable' is actually a much newer word:
flammable, inflammable These two words are synonymous. Flammable is a much newer word, apparently coined in 1813 to serve in a translation from Latin. In the 1920s it was adopted by the National Fire Protection Association in place of inflammable. Underwriters and others interested in fire safety followed suit. The reason given for its adoption was the possibility that the in- of inflammable might be misunderstood as a negative prefix.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage

The confusion over the 'in' in inflammable is because often the prefix is used to denote 'not' or 'without'. Like 'ineffable' means the opposite of 'effable'; it basically means not effable.

However, the 'in' in 'inflammable' has its root in another prefix. It is the prefix 'en', which is used to add the meaning 'cause to be' to a word. For example, 'entangle' means 'cause to be tangled' or 'enrage' means 'caused to be full of rage'. ' Inflammable' therefore means 'caused to be flammable' that is the object has the ability to be flammable. Rather like 'inflame' means 'cause to be on fire'.

Yay. I love the English language, it makes no sense whatsoever!


  1. Sarah,
    Language is strange. A few businesses don't know the difference between accepted and excepted. I think it may be because they call in an ad and the word is misunderstood. I called one local company on it when I saw the mistake on a big sign they put up on their building site. They blamed the sign painter.
    Robin was a friend. a former missionary and was only in her early 50's. Such a loss. Her family certainly needs our prayers.

  2. Joyce I will certainly pray for you, Robin's family and her friends.

    ~many blessings.

  3. Oh how fun!--I just love words. (o:

  4. I love words too Michele, I find the English language fascinating.