Skip to content

Flammable vs Inflammable: Word Wednesday

A little late with the Word Wednesday post [but it’s still Wednesday somewhere, right?] owing to the vagaries of the Philippines infrastructure in particular my internet service provider! Flammable vs inflammable! Two words that for many years confused me and no doubt countless other people.

Let me go to a different source to see the meaning of these two words and if there is any difference between flammable and inflammable. This is what Stack Exchange has to say:

English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. Join them; it only takes a minute:

This was the question preceded by a similar question:

Possible Duplicate:
Why are not infamous and inflammable the opposite of famous and flammable like incomplete, inactivity, inappropriate and so on?
I’m very confused by the existence of these apparently antonymous words, which actually mean the same thing. Which word should I use? Can both words be used interchangeably?

Here is the top answer:

Both words mean the same thing, i.e. that something can be set on fire. The reason for the confusion comes from people thinking that the prefix in- of inflammable is the Latin negative prefix in- (which is commonly used in English, e.g. indecent). In actual fact, in this case it is derived from the Latin preposition in. It’s easier to think about it with the word inflame. If you can inflame something, it is inflammable (inflame-able).

In most cases, it is better to just use flammable to avoid confusion and accidents.

And another answer from a sharp wit:

Definitely use flammable if you’re concerned about the safety of illiterates. – David Schwartz Aug 26 ’11 at 12:30

Then comes the ‘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.

Finally, someone could not resist introducing the irregardless word which in my opinion is NOT a word 🙂 Someone else agreed with me:

But irregardless isn’t really a word by most people’s definitions! It’s just a bit of historical US “country-bumpkin-speak”, whereas flammable and inflammable are both perfectly valid words. In principle they’re totally interchangeable, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a tanker carrying Inflammable Liquid. Personally, I associate Inflammable with stuff that’s intended to burn (under appropriate control, of course). Flammable is more for stuff you really want to avoid accidentally setting alight. – FumbleFingers May 2 ’11 at 2:31

It was all clear to me until that last entry. Why complicate things? Just ban the word inflammable. Note to word police: ban irregardless too 🙂


Follow Me On Social Media
Published inWord Wednesday

Be First to Comment

I would love to hear from you

©2021 - 2022 Stephen Bentley - and Hendry Publishing Ltd Registered in England and Wales: Company Number 13486229 Registered Office: 20-22 Wenlock Road London N1 7GU All Rights Reserved