Wednesday’s Word: Inflammable
One of the things about being a writer is that you have to pay attention to things like grammar and punctuation. And some days with English it feels like you can’t see the forest for the weeds. I’m actually fluent in Spanish and I can tell you that it seems a lot more well-behaved when it comes to things like grammar and spelling and such than its unruly red-headed step-cousin, English. Case in point: today’s word, inflammable.
It’s a word I’m sure most of us have heard, but it’s really an odd one. You see, often when you see the prefix “in” in front of a word it means “not” or “un”. In other words “incredible” means not believable while “credible” means believable. The same goes for escapable and inescapable. Not so for our dear friend inflammable, however. You see, inflammable actually means “easily set on fire” and the word flammable means…”easily set on fire”. Crazy, isn’t it? Your thesaurus will definitely betray you on this one.
What exactly is going on here? Well, the use of “in” as a prefix in English reflects its use in Latin where it can mean either “not” or it can be used as an intensifier. In the case of inflammable, the word is being used in the latter way. Sort of the way “invigorate” means “to make more vigorous, more strong”.
So, how do you say, “not easily set on fire”? Nonflammable. Somehow it doesn’t have the same ring to it, but there it is.
Maybe you’re one of those masters of English who doesn’t get tripped up with words like inflammable, but me, I guess I’m still learning on the job. I don’t expect I’ll ever fully grasp the nuances of English grammar, but at least I know enough to think twice before buying inflammable pajamas!
What about you? Are there words whose meaning trips you up or that don’t seem to make sense?