Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 94: Some Burning Confusion

This week on Grammar Grater, we're going to look at a couple of words that can be easily confused: flammable and inflammable. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Webster's New World College Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary, both the words flammable and inflammable describe something that can easily catch fire; something combustible.

This can be confusing because the prefix -in often means not, but the word inflammable is simply a product of its history. According to the Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology, inflammable probably entered the English language from French inflammable, which came into French from Latin. Inflammable's first recorded use in English meaning "easily set on fire" dates back to 1605. Robert K. Barnhart explains that flammable is a much newer word, first recorded in 1813, and it came from the Latin flammare. Barnhart also says,

"Inflammable [in the sense of 'easily set on fire'] has been largely replaced in commercial usage by flammable because the prefix -in was often erroneously taken as a negative, thereby meaning 'not flammable'."

A stronger case for flammable rather than inflammable comes from a 1983 essay by Archibald A. Hill, entitled, "Bad Words, Good Words, Misused Words." Hill wrote:

"A word is bad if it is ambiguous to such a degree that it leads to misunderstanding. For me, the perfect example of such a word is inflammable, if it is applied to substances. As most dictionaries now recognize, inflammable can be confused with 'non-combustible', and so lead to accidents."

It's vital—if only for one's personal safety—to remember that flammable and inflammable mean the same thing: can easily catch fire.

The opposite of flammable or inflammable, according to Fowler's Modern English Usage, is non-flammable, or as Archibald Hill pointed out, non-combustible.

Meanwhile, there's a related word, inflammatory, that's worth mentioning. According to Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner, the word inflammatory means "provocative of an angry or violent reaction" and is used in sentences such as:

The inflammatory rhetoric almost caused a riot.

Fowler's Modern English Usage adds that inflammatory can also refer to inflammation of the body, which the Oxford English Dictionary says is a symptom "affecting some organ or part of the body, characterized by excessive heat, swelling, pain and redness; also a particular occurrence of this."

We'll spare you any specific examples.

Sources: The Oxford Dictionary of Current English, Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, the Oxford English Dictionary, Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology by Robert K. Barnhart, Fowler's Modern English Usage by RW Burchfield and Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner.

Music: "The Warmest Room" by Billy Bragg; "Streets of Londo" by Ralph McTell; "I'm on Fire" by Bruce Springsteen

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