September 19, 2000
Karl Lagnemma wrote:
Can you explain why inflammable has a similar meaning to flammable?
Inflammable and flammable both mean 'capable of being set on fire' or 'easily set on fire', so they're really the same, rather than similar, in meaning. This sense equivalence is confirmed by dictionaries, though some writers insist that flammable means 'combustible' and inflammable means 'explosive'.
Inflammable dates from the early 17th century. Originally its opposite was noninflammable, but now we use the easier term nonflammable.
In the word inflammable, the prefix in- functions as an intensive-it indicates increased emphasis or force. But because this prefix can also mean 'not', inflammable could mistakenly be interpreted as meaning 'not flammable.'
Though the adjective flammable was coined in 1813 in a translation of a Latin text, it was not commonly used until the early 20th century, when the scientific community, the fire-insurance industry and, specifically, the National Fire Protection Association tried to revive the term as an official replacement for the ambiguous inflammable. After World War II, the British Standards Institution took up the campaign: "In order to avoid any possible ambiguity, it is the Institution's policy to encourage the use of the terms 'flammable' and 'non-flammable' rather than 'inflammable' and 'non-inflammable.'"
The campaign to revive flammable was successful in commercial and scientific contexts. But the general public was (and still is) resistant to the change, and so inflammable is still very much in use. Inflammable is more common in British English than in American English. It's also the word more usually used in nontechnical and figurative contexts: "The furor is a reminder that despite overall harmony, race has the potential to be an inflammable issue in Malaysia" (Asiaweek, January 2000). Use of the literal and figurative meanings is shown in a recent headline in the (London) Financial Times: "Highly inflammable: Labour policymakers failed to foresee the speed and anger of the public's response to high petrol prices."
WORDS@RANDOM | The Mavens' Word of the Day | Sensitive Language
How to Choose A Dictionary | Book Search
|Copyright © 1995-2008 Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.