ENGLISCH/734: Questions to Mrs. Gobbledygook (113) - in(flammable) (SB)


113. Flammable or Inflammable?

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

...I sort of stumbled across the expression "inflammable" which I took for the opposite of flammable. But when I looked it up in the dictionary, I found that both words mean the same. What do you think?

Nina Sahi (Ylöjärvi, Finland)


Dear Ms Sahi

Thank you very much for your letter [...]. Further to your question I am afraid you are right. The words flammable and inflammable must look as if they are antonyms to a non-native speaker of English. In fact, they both mean "easily set on fire". Searching through my archives I found that a nothing-to-be-added short information about this matter exists already and could be found in one of last years Spotlight- magazines 5/06 on page 68, the column for language perfectionists only! In there the author explains that "inflammable" is the older word:

First attested in English in 1605, it derived from the Latin verb 'inflammare' ("to set on fire") and is related to the English verb "inflame" and the noun "inflammation". "Flammable", which was first recorded in 1813, is derived from the shorter Latin verb 'flammare'.

That, at least, is what etymological dictionaries say. But perhaps that is not the whole story. 'There are two different Latin prefixes "in-".' One means "into" and is attached to verbs, as in "in-"+ "flammare", as an intensifier. The other, far more common these days, makes an adjective negative: "insufficient", "ineffective" and so on. Perhaps people started interpreting "inflammable" in terms of this negating prefix, so they thought it meant "not easily set on fire". In the US today, you see the word "flammable" on all warnings. this is meant to avoid misinterpreting "inflammable" as fireproof.
(Spotlight May 2006)

In some dictionaries you will find the expression inflammable marked as a word which is especially used in British English (e.g. highly inflammable liquids). "Flammable" is American English but also used in Britain. The opposite of "flammable" in American English is "fireproof" (e.g. a fireproof door). In British English it is "non-flammable".

Hoping that this will set your imagination on fire and please, write again...

Mrs Gobbledygook

10 May 2007