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
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 ...
Leave a comment now
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!
A little housekeeping matter: if you're overcome by a strange urge to unsubscribe (and having a nice lie down and a cup of tea doesn't cure you) you can carry out this foul deed by scrolling to the end of any newsletter and clicking on the (gulp) unsubscribe link ...
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.
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 môts' you definitely do
not need a circumflex over the 'o' in '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: http://pub37.bravenet.com/guestmap/view.php?usernum=3170114826 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 week: Floccinaucinihilipilification (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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