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The Write Way

10 January 2003

No, No, No!


As we hurl ourselves at the third (or fourth, depending on your mathematical persuasion) year of the new millennium, and everyone is being all positive and gung-ho, making and breaking New Year's resolutions with gay abandon, I thought this would be a good time to focus on the negative ... because negatives are easier to understand ... or are they?

As Lavinia said, stamping her daintily-clad foot just the other day, "No, no, a thousand times no!"

In English, we often form negatives by adding a prefix to words:

likely - unlikely

understood - misunderstood

complete - incomplete

modest - immodest

reversible - irreversible

logical - illogical

Not really all that logical, is it? All those different prefixes, all meaning the same thing ... NO!

But you can be pretty sure that if you add a prefix to a word, you're changing its meaning ... Umm ... except for words like "flammable" and "inflammable."

If something is "flammable" it means it will burn readily ... right? So ... if it's "inflammable" that should mean it doesn't burn ... right? 

Wrong. Both words mean the same.

Visitors to the Apostrophe Forum have been addressing this problem of flammable and inflammable materials. Richard Tinsley did some investigating and found the following satisfactory explanation at the Word Detective site here

Blame it on Latin and its tricky prefixes. In the beginning, there was "inflammable," a perfectly nice English word based on the Latin "inflammare," meaning "to kindle," from "in" (in) plus "flamma" (flame). "Inflammable" became standard English in the 16th century. So far, so good.

Comes the 19th century, and some well-meaning soul dreamt up the word "flammable," basing it on a slightly different Latin word, "flammare," meaning "to set on fire." There was nothing terribly wrong with "flammable," but it never really caught on. After all, we already had "inflammable," so "flammable" pretty much died out in the 1800's.

"But wait," you say, "I saw 'flammable' just the other day." Indeed you did. "Flammable" came back, one of the few successful instances of social engineering of language.

The Latin prefix "in," while it sometimes means just "in" (as in "inflammable"), more often turns up in English words meaning "not" (as in "invisible" -- "not visible"). After World War Two, safety officials on both sides of the Atlantic decided that folks were too likely to see "inflammable" and decide that the word meant "fireproof," so various agencies set about encouraging the revival of "flammable" as a substitute. The campaign seems to have worked, and "inflammable" has all but disappeared.

That left what to call something that was not likely to burst into flames, but here the process of linguistic renovation was easier. "Non-flammable" is a nice, comforting word, and besides, it's far easier on the tongue than its now thankfully obsolete precursor, "non-inflammable."

The Oxford English Dictionary adds this usage note: Historically,  flammable and  inflammable mean the same thing. However, the presence of the prefix  in- has misled many people into assuming that  inflammable means "not flammable" or "noncombustible." The prefix  -in in  inflammable is not, however, the Latin negative prefix  -in, which is related to the English  -un and appears in such words as  indecent and  inglorious. Rather, this  -in is an intensive prefix derived from the Latin preposition  in. This prefix also appears in the word  enflame. But many people are not aware of this derivation, and for clarity's sake it is advisable to use only flammable to give warnings.

There's a natty little exercise you can try to test your knowledge of negative prefixes ... just to make sure you were listening here.

Have Your Say ...

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Most people who've contacted me about last week's topic on the difference between "two times" and "twice" seem to agree that "twice" IS more commonly seen in UK English, and that "thrice" is rare in the US. A number of people pointed out that Lionel Ritchie had a hit song without having to worry about parallel structure ... but there you go - as Jim Noble pointed out, that's why we have poetic licence!

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This week's quiz:

Match the first word in each set with the one closest in meaning:

1. recondite - a. seasoned b. rebuilt c. highly recommended d. obscure

2. trajectory - a. target b. path of a moving object c. opening in a door for cross-ventilation d. throwing away

3. incarnation (condition of being) - a. deified b. in the flesh c. spiritual d. covered in flowers

4. sinecure - a. dog's tail b. apathy c. office without work d. absolution

5. factotum - a. bit of information b. plant manager c. a worker who can do all jobs d. manmade cult object

6. compendium - a. heavy tome b. those who hang together c. a summary d. a place or instrument for weighing

7. interdiction - a. entreaty for another b. a conversation c. ban d. interruption of a speech

8. peremptory - a. sold out b. thoroughly empty c. urgent d. not long lasting

9. recant - a. sing over and over b. retract a position c. an ornamental melody d. to pour back into the bottle

10. castigate - a. take apart b. punish severely c. throw away d. use smoke to disinfect or exterminate pests

Those of you who have occasion to put pen to paper to persuade will find this fascinating. It's an e-book that discusses many of the techniques used over the years by those masters of persuasion - the ad writers. If you've ever wondered why every fast food operator asks if you "want fries with that?"  or which three little words make people want to buy, you'll enjoy reading this book. You can download a free copy from my site here. Just click on the link to Greatest Marketing Secrets. (To save a copy to your hard drive, right click instead of left.) There's also a little surprise on the first page for those of you who have a business site ... No, that's all I'm saying ... you'll have to see for yourself.

Frank Sirrett found these and thought we'd get a chuckle from them:

1. A bicycle can't stand alone because it is two-tired.
2. What's the definition of a will? It's a dead giveaway.
3. Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
4. A backward poet writes inverse.
5. In democracy it's your vote that counts; In feudalism it's your count that votes.
6. She had a boyfriend with a wooden leg, but broke it off.
7. A chicken crossing the road is poultry in motion.
8. If you don't pay your exorcist you get repossessed.
9. With her marriage she got a new name and a dress.
10. Show me a piano falling down a mineshaft and I'll show you A-flat minor.

Love the last one :)

Last week's quiz:

Find the odd word:

1. abstract, ideal, CONCRETE, hypothetical

2. agenda, schedule, plan, FLEXIBILITY

3. atmosphere, mood, ambience, AFFABILITY

4. SALVATION, revelation, apocalypse, devastation

5. arduous, SIMPLE, tough, exacting

6. benevolent, altruistic, MALEVOLENT, generous

7. mockery, REPRODUCTION, burlesque, travesty

8. unqualified, categorical, unequivocal, PARTIAL

9. PERMIT, force, coerce, compel

10.complacent, SERIOUS pleased, nonchalant

Rob caught me sleeping in the back row of French class last week:

 ... in the phrase 'bon mts' you definitely do not need a circumflex over the 'o' in 'mots'.

The correct phrase is just 'bon mots'.


Do you enjoy the odd round of golf? Then you may not appreciate this next definition that comes from the Cynics Dictionary:

GOLF The art of driving hard, avoiding the rough, surmounting traps and hazards, aiming straight, and arriving on the green at last, only to end up in a hole in the ground before your companions. The favored pastime of businessmen and their cronies, probably without a full appreciation of its metaphorical implications.


Then add a flag and message to the Map of the World: You can read the previous 99 messages by clicking on the List button at the top of the page.

A Little Something Extra

FREE Report: How to Write a Book ...  Click for your copy here 

Have you written an article, poem or book recently? Have your family rolled on the floor laughing or told you that you're the next Shakespeare/ Harold Robbins? Would you like an honest opinion about your work?

There are numerous sites on the Internet that have people who are happy to critique your writing for you - some charge, but many offer their time freely. This site has links to dozens here

Naturally, you need to be a little circumspect about these groups ... have a bit of a look around the site, lurk on the boards and read their sample reviews before you decide which ones to approach. But you can meet some great people with a similar love of writing at places like these. 

Word of the weekFloccinaucinihilipilification (n) The act of making something worthless," as in, "I admired him for nothing so much as his floccinaucinihilipilification of money."

This word is derived from a number of Latin words:

Floccus "a tuft of wool;" Nauci is related to nugae "trifles, trivial things;"  Nihil "nothing;"  Pilus "hair." 

Isn't it fascinating to trace the origins of our words like this?

Oxymoron of the week: New Year's resolution (Ah, c'mon now ... who keeps them?) 

This week's Latin phrase is perfect for those of you struggling to keep your New Year's resolution to stop smoking; give up eating chocolate, chips and pizza; cut down on your alcohol intake etc etc ...

Difficile est longum subito deponere amorem. (It is difficult to suddenly give up a long love.)



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