To burn or not to burn? Good question.
Dear Word Detective: I have often wondered why the word “inflammable” exists when we use the word to indicate that something is actually “flammable,” not “in”-flammable or “not flammable,” as I would typically consider the prefix “in” to work. — Andrew Workum.
Gee, time flies when you’re having fun. I knew I had addressed the “flammable/inflammable” puzzle a few years ago, but on checking my files I discovered that I’m going to have to expand my personal definition of “a few” into double digits. Let’s just say that if a person was, say, ten years old when I wrote that column, it’s entirely possible that the same adorable tot is on his or her second marriage at this point. I, on the other hand, have aged not a day. It’s truly amazing, and I owe it all to you folks for wrinkling in my stead, like the audience of Dorian Grey. Awesome.
Although I haven’t directly dealt with the “flammable/inflammable” question lately, I have frequently referred to it while exploring a recurring theme here at Word Detective World Headquarters, namely the unreliability of certain English prefixes. Simply put, a couple of them don’t always mean what you think. We all learn that certain bits, particularly “in” and “dis,” when glued onto the front of a word, mean “not,” as in “dishonest” or “inhospitable.” But every so often, “dis” and “in” play a little trick and hit the gas instead of the brake, adding the meaning “very,” “and how” or “you betcha.” For instance, the eternal quest to find a “gruntled” former employee to balance the “disgruntled” ones is doomed, because “dis” in “disgruntled” means “very,” not “not.” (“Gruntled” is an adjective meaning, roughly, “so angry as to be reduced to making grunting sounds.” Even “ungruntled” wouldn’t really mean “happy.”) If “dis” and “in” were cars, a recall would definitely be in order. That may seem like stretching the metaphor a bit, but there actually was something similar to a recall order issued in the case of “flammable” and “inflammable.”
It all began, in the 16th century, with “inflammable” meaning “capable of burning,” based on the Latin “inflammare,” meaning “to set on fire,” from “in” (here meaning simply “in”) plus “flammare” (to burn). In the 19th century, however, “flammable” cropped up, also from the Latin “flammare,” and also meaning “burnable.” But since we already had “inflammable,” the new “flammable” seemed unnecessary and faded away fairly quickly.
In the wake of World War II, however, public safety officials became concerned about the “in” of “inflammable,” worrying that many people assumed that “in” meant “not” and that the word therefore meant “fireproof” when it actually meant just the opposite. There was also the problem that the opposite of “inflammable” pretty much had to be “non-inflammable,” which was inherently confusing and thus dangerous in its own right. So safety agencies solved the problem by bringing back the extinct word “flammable” and encouraging manufacturers, etc., to use “flammable” and “non-flammable” instead of “inflammable.” The campaign seems to have worked, making “inflammable” safely obsolete.