Stupidly Flammable

We recently took the opportunity to teach a Romanian colleague some new words.  Her English is already amazing but this came about from a conversation whereby she hadn’t previously heard of the word “elbow” being used as a verb.  She said that she kicked something with her elbow, because that was the closest she could think of.

We did conclude that the English language is a bit weird.  For example, it contains some words that are actually the opposites of themselves.  Think of words like “trim” which means adding ribbons and suchlike to something, or taking away excess hair, for example.  The word “sanction” can mean giving approval or giving a penalty.  One can show or hide a film by screening it.  I guess the most common one to enter the modern vernacular is “sick”.

These words are called contranyms, but also go under a variety of other titles such as auto-antonym, enantiodrome, and a “Janus word” after the Roman god of beginnings and endings, who is often pictured with two faces pointed in opposite directions.

Contranyms can also be homophonic when two words that sound the same mean the opposite (think raise and raze) or homographic where the meaning of the word differs based only on its pronunciation (resign, for example).

In English we also have words that look like opposites but are actually the same.  Does that make them the antonym of the contranym?!  I’m not quite sure.  Examples are “habitable” and “inhabitable”, which both mean you can live there and “regardless” and “irregardless” meaning without concern.

Irregardless is a difficult one anyway, because it’s actually a double negative.  The “ir-” prefix means “not”, while the “-less” suffix means “without”, so the literal translation of the word is “not without regard”.  The word itself is correct as an opposite of regardless but the two words are used interchangeably.

The example where stupidity comes in, though, is with “flammable” and “inflammable”.  With most of the words I’ve already mentioned, context enables you to work out what the intended meaning is.  Even if you can’t work out that meaning, it’s unlikely to be as crucial as it is in the case of something being able to burn!

The first issue with flammable and inflammable is probably when they’re compared to two with very similar meaning – “combustible” and “incombustible”.  Combustible means “can catch on fire” while the “in-” prefix on incombustible means that kids are fine to play with matches around it.  Don’t play with matches kids, it’s dangerous anyway.

However, the “in-” prefix can also be used as an intensifier and comes from the Latin “en-” meaning “to cause a person or thing to be in”.  Think “enslave”, “encourage” and also (appropriately) “enflame”.  Because “inflammable” is derived from “inflame” which is itself derived from “enflame”, inflammable and flammable both mean that the thing is able to burn.

Apparently both words have been in the language for centuries with inflammable actually being the older word.  Both words were used interchangeably and with little confusion, with inflammable being the word of choice for the vast majority.

This was until 1920 when the American National Fire Protection Association decided that people were getting too confused about the meaning of the two words and suggested that only the newer “flammable” should be used.  This didn’t really remedy the little confusion that there was though, but rather added to it!  I guess that’s what happens when you give one country’s Fire Protection Association rule over the dictionary!

Can we also just give an honourable (I type in “English English”, also known simply as “English”, remember!) mention, in a slightly off-topic fashion, to those who try to say something really important or take the Mick, but fail really badly due to spelling mistakes?  For example, the person who was thankful to all the women who campaigned long and hard to gain women equality in getting this person the “oppertunity” to vote.  Or the person who tried to belittle me on Facebook by calling me “rediculous”.  Yes, that’s right, I was either being “diculous” again or withdrawing my dic…

Hmm, no, let’s not go there!  That’s also the line I chose not to cross when asserting to my Romanian colleague that the names of most body parts could be used a verb.

I’m the trouble starter, punking instigator.
I’m the fear addicted, danger illustrated.
I’m a firestarter, twisted firestarter,
you’re the firestarter, twisted firestarter.
I’m the bitch you hated, filth infatuated.
Yeah, I’m the pain you tasted, fell intoxicated
I’m a firestarter, twisted firestarter,
you’re the firestarter, twisted firestarter.
I’m the self-inflicted, punk detonator.
Yeah, I’m the one invented, twisted animator.
I’m a firestarter, twisted firestarter,
you’re the firestarter, twisted firestarter.
starter… starter… starter…

Fire Starter by The Prodigy

Comments 6

  1. Eleanor Parks

    I love this! It reminds me of a conversation I had with my Dad when I was younger about the word “priceless”. I argued that the “-less” suffix meant “without”, so therefore, “priceless” meant “without a price”. My Dad agreed, until I said that if something was without a price, that surely meant that it was worthless. Of course, my Dad pointed out that it actually meant that there was no price high enough to put on something, while still agreeing that it was confusing. He smiled sarcastically when I told him that learning all these contranyms had been invaluable. 🙂

    • Michael

      Hahaha! I come from say thought as you, because if something doesn’t have a price it would be (in UK) £0.00, which means it’s free. I like the thought back to invaluable.

  2. Linda Kreger

    Warms and old English teacher’s heart 🙂 I love words.

  3. Liberty Henwick

    I enjoyed that thanks! My favourite is extraordinary. I have an idea of compiling a series of interviews with some extra-ordinary local folk. Might be very boring, or not?

    • Michael

      I hadn’t thought about extraordinary! (I think that one also fails on pronunciation given that I think most people drop the first “a”.)

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