Dear Language Nerd,
I have a burning question about language! Is it “flammable” or “inflammable”?
Yours, John R.
It’s both! But one is peskier than the other. “Flammable” and “inflammable” both mean “if you touch a match to this it will go up like the Fourth of July.” The “in-“ part of “inflammable” is a Latin prefix meaning “in” or “on,” like in “inscribe” (write on) or “incise” (cut into), so “inflammable” is basically the same as “on-fire-able.”
This Latin prefix has absolutely nothing to do with the other Latin prefix “in-,” which means “not” or “opposite of.” (A plague on Romans and their identical prefixes!) After enough catastrophes had been caused by people reasonably believing that “inflammable” meant “can’t be burned,” particularly dangerous objects began to be labeled “flammable” instead. My etymology dictionary shows “inflammable” from the 1600s and “flammable” from 1813, so a pretty dangerous couple of centuries there.
And what if you do want to say that something can’t be burned? Well, “non-flammable” is the usual term, but if you really want to make trouble, you can make an argument for “ininflammable.” I vote we stick with “flammable” for kindling and “non-flammable” for rocks, and leave “inflammable” out of it entirely.
The Language Nerd
P.S. Another word that uses the “in/on” sense of the prefix is “inaugurate,” which means to “augur in,” or to establish something (or someone) when omens are favorable. Forget swing states – I want to see candidates trying to sway birds into flying more auspiciously!
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